Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best performances in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along.
King of the Court: Joel Embiid
As with any sequel, before we wade into Joel Embiid vs. Karl-Anthony Towns Part II: The Reckoning we need to first revisit Part I: First Blood. Back in November, Embiid was still easing into things and coming off a night of precautionary rest to face the other Saving Grace of Big, Bad Bigs, and had one of his least promising outings in a Sixers jersey to that point. Embiid managed a 10-point, 10-rebound double-double that looked less unsightly on paper than it did to the eye. Embiid wasn’t alone in his mediocrity — offensively and defensively, pretty much every Philadelphia player not on the ball was a bystander, and the game was all but over by halftime. The Timberwolves won by 24, and in the final frame, Towns — who finished with 25 on 12-of-18 shooting that night — left Embiid grasping at air on the perimeter, then sacrificed Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot in the paint. It wasn’t pretty.
Since then, Embiid has just about single-handedly vindicated Sam Hinkie’s three or so frustrating years of trafficking in factory-variant D-League players. The Cameroonian has proved to be most of, if not all of, what he was supposed to be. Embiid still relies heavily on his athleticism and his footwork tracks like a stallion on roller skates, but he’s had a leg up on the more polished, complete Towns in the places (STATISTICALLY) that matter. Per 36 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference, Embiid has more points (27.6 to 22.0), blocks (3.4 to 1.4), and steals (1.1 to 0.6), plus he gets to the line more often (10.1 free throw attempts to Towns’s 4.9).
And during Tuesday night’s Part II, in which the Sixers ground out a last-second 93–91 win, Towns posted an impressive stat line — 23 points and 15 rebounds — but Embiid played like he hadn’t forgotten about getting shifted out of his size 17s on the business end of that back-to-back in November. Embiid finished with 25 points, five offensive rebounds (and eight total), and two blocks, one of which might guarantee Shabazz Muhammad never feels safe going backdoor on anyone ever again.
Embiid also head-faked Zach LaVine into the rafters (!), drove and kicked to Nerlens Noel (!!), who wrapped the ball back around to … you know what, just look at it. It’s almost like it didn’t matter that two of Philadelphia’s best guards were out with injuries.
On the final play of the game — a Robert Covington buzzer-beater that came after he’d shot a ghastly 3-for-13 and earned boos most of the night — it was Embiid drawing a double from Towns and Andrew Wiggins that freed Covington up.
In 2017, resolve to find someone who loves and supports you like Joel Embiid loves and supports Robert Covington.
Runner-up: DeMarcus Cousins
There’s probably something to be said about Nuggets head coach Mike Malone facing off against the franchise that defenestrated him — but that was two whole years ago and Nikola Jokic is happening.
Jokic had 18 points and Jusuf Nurkic added 16, but Cousins, who is out here a shade under 7 feet and Eurostepping around people at full speed, proved too much for the two to keep a lid on. Malone’s plan seemed to revolve around leaning on Cousins to pester him out of his game but — well, imagine trying to bar a door from the inside by propping a chair up against it, only to realize the door actually opens from the outside. That’s more or less how it played out.
Cousins had 31 points in Sacramento’s 120–113 win, and is still awesome.
Honorable Mention: JaVale McGee
JaVale McGee got a haircut that I can only respect because I could personally never, but Shaq decided McGee needed to be immortalized on the next segment of “Shaqtin’.” Ordinarily, Shaq would tack on a “#Shaqtin,” the segment would air on TNT, and that’d probably be the end of it. But McGee brought the fucking sword of Damocles down on the retiree-slash-pundit.
According to section B, article 37 of the Folgers Roast coda, Shaq, as a rule, has to leave Inside the NBA, and with the newly ratified Vienna Light French corollary, the country. But he should probably leave the whole entire planet, just to be safe.