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Round 1 of the Karl-Anthony Towns–Joel Embiid Bout Goes to Philly

The two heavyweights will likely get suspended for their skirmish Wednesday, but the Sixers have gone undefeated this season by pushing teams around

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

New Year’s resolutions always sound great when you make them. This is it, you think. This is when I really get it right. Nothing processed; all organic everything. Boot camps to get swole and meditation to get serene. No screens after 10, because sleep keeps you sane. Later for all that toxicity; time to turn a new page. And it goes great … until you hit that speed bump, that unplanned circumstance, that stunt-food calorie bomb that you just can’t not eat, because when’s the next time you’re going to be in town for the state fair, right?

On the ninth night of the 2019-20 NBA season, Joel Embiid—who recently vowed he was all done with trash talk and mind-game malfeasance of any kind—met his irresistible deep-fried Kool-Aid poutine. Its name: Karl-Anthony Towns, one of the most dominant players of the first week of the new season and the leader of a 3-0 Timberwolves team that had come to Philly on Wednesday to square up against the equally undefeated 76ers.

Midway through the third quarter, with Philly holding a 20-point lead, Embiid just couldn’t help himself, new-year-new-me intentions be damned:

An entertaining hoss fight soon became a battle royal, which then morphed into a grappling match, as Sixers star Ben Simmons restrained gaming buddy Towns with a hold—not quite a rear naked choke, not quite a head-and-arm choke from a back mount—that appeared to make KAT tap out. Eventually, bodies were separated, both bigs were ejected, Embiid did his now-customary Most Popular Heel In The Territory act … and the remaining Sixers returned to the business of grinding the Wolves into paste, finishing off a 117-95 thrashing that saw Philly hold what had been the league’s third-best offense to 39.5 percent shooting, with 21 turnovers against just 12 assists.

The scene soon shifted to social media, because the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement now mandates that every skirmish become eventized as a multiplatform affair to generate the maximum amount of engagement and brand-expansion opportunities for all involved. It got hairy.

Embiid poked fun at Towns’s parents for coming to their son’s defense and the infamous “Jimmy Butler exposing KAT and Andrew Wiggins at practice” story. Towns called bullshit on Embiid’s “I was raised around lions” tough-guy bit (something Embiid once admitted was an act he’d cooked up to intimidate American kids who knew nothing about his upbringing in Cameroon) with a series of cap and clown emoji, and carped on the much-memed image of Joel crying after Philly’s Game 7 loss to the Raptors. Embiid responded by Leeroy Jenkins’ing his way into the comments before doubling down in a separate post to his own account, punctuating the whole fracas with the line, “It’s a known thing that I OWN YOU.”

Embiid and Towns are both going to get suspended for all this, probably for multiple games. And the punishment may well be harsher now than it would’ve at the time of their ejections; one imagines the league office doesn’t love two bona fide MVP candidates going back and forth calling one another “bitches” and “pussies” in front of the entire internet, which makes sense, because doing that is stupid! It’ll be interesting to see whether Simmons takes a seat, too; despite the officials on the scene allowing him to stay in the game after deeming him “a peacemaker,” the Wolves are reportedly arguing that the choke he used on Towns was dangerous enough to merit after-the-fact discipline.

On one hand, the prospect of Philly having to play any games without its two best players because one couldn’t keep himself from getting in a pissing contest and the other has “always got [his] teammates’ back” seems like the kind of dumb unforced error unbecoming of a team with the kind of aspirations these Sixers harbor. Wise and true veterans simply hate to see it. I have proof.

On the other, though: This is how the Sixers have fashioned themselves, right? They’re the goon squad, the unapologetically loud giants intent on stomping out smaller opponents; no team plays out of the post more, which stands to reason, because no team can force as many mouse-in-the-house mismatches up and down the positional spectrum. Philadelphia owns the NBA’s third-stingiest defense in the league thus far, using its sun-blotting size to force several high-class scoring threats (Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Trae Young, the overall Minnesota offense) into subpar nights on the way to a spotless 4-0 record.

They’re designed to punch you in the mouth and stop you from doing what you want; they are—if you’ll permit a borrowed phraseBroad Street Bullies, here to steal the ball and your lunch money on their way to the top of the Eastern Conference. With Embiid and Al Horford manning the middle, Simmons and Josh Richardson providing All-Defensive Team–caliber penetration prevention at the point of attack, and rookie Matisse Thybulle already slackening jaws with his penchant for wreaking havoc—he leads the league in steals and deflections per game and leads all guards in blocks per game despite playing just 21.8 minutes a night—it seems smarter to bet that this will continue than that it won’t.

Frenzied grappling, eye-gouging when the ref ain’t lookin’, full-throated shit-talking before, during, and after the fact … this is what the bad guys do, and when they’re really good at it, we boo them so loud it sounds like cheering. If everything else is wrestling these days, this might as well be too.

What comes next could tell us a lot about where Philly can go this season. In years past, Embiid’s absence has augured grim death for the Sixers’ on-court prospects. So far this season, though, Brett Brown’s club has fared well without its All-Star center, outscoring opponents by 12 points in 116 minutes without Embiid on the court—an average of five points per 100 possessions. Now, that’s not nearly as good as the 19.7 points-per-100 by which they stomp fools with Embiid at center, but it’s also not the well of horrors into which they descended without him last season—remember, the Raptors outscored Philly by 109 points in the 99 minutes Embiid rested in the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals—which, after all, was one of the main points of bringing in Horford in free agency.

The Sixers are about to head out on a Western Conference road trip where they’ll face the Trail Blazers, suddenly good Suns, Jazz, and Nuggets—four teams with a combined record of 13-6. Losing games without Embiid and/or Simmons for any portion of that trip wouldn’t sound any alarms about the 76ers’ viability as a title contender. Continuing to stomp through opposition without him/them would certainly make one hell of a statement on that matter, though.

The Bucks are 2-2 and looking shaky beyond Giannis Antetokounmpo. (Eric Bledsoe continues to inspire something less than confidence.) The Raptors and Heat have gotten off to strong starts, but Toronto’s basically playing a shortened postseason rotation that can’t last, and Miami’s overall offensive talent level past old pal Jimmy Buckets remains an open question. The Celtics are in the mix, but Philly smoked them on opening night, and their most fearsome anti-Sixers weapon now wears red, white, and blue and spends his time tut-tutting Joel and Ben as they wrestle rather than wrestling them himself.

The time is now for the Sixers to stake their claim to the conference; the road is clear, if they can get out of their own way.

Then again, maybe burning yourself sometimes is the price you pay for being able to set opponents, fan bases, and the basketball-watching world on fire.

”That’s what the city of Philadelphia is about,” Embiid told reporters after the game, before he started tweeting. “You got to come in here, you got to fight, you got to play hard, you got to be gritty, you got to be a Broad Street bully.”

Whoever said nothing tastes as good as healthy feels never tried that deep-fried Kool-Aid poutine.