Since Sunday, all talk surrounding Joel Embiid focused on his desire to become a “good asshole.” He shushed himself after hitting a dagger 3 against the Bulls on Sunday. He quoted The Dark Knight in a self-reflective Instagram post on Monday. And on Tuesday, in his first game since releasing his new edict, he showed what being a good asshole means.
Embiid, who opened the night to a mixed chorus of cheers and jeers, wasted no time in flexing on his opponents, and those who dared boo him on his home floor. Just seconds into the 76ers’ showdown with the Clippers, Embiid wrestled a Ben Simmons miss off the rim, and powered straight up, through Kawhi Leonard, for an and-1. And then, as only a good asshole (or the Night King) could do, he raised his arms, and grinned ear to ear.
“That’ll get the fans right back on his side,” said TNT’s Stan Van Gundy. “That’s what they want.”
It took a little more time, but Philly fans got that and more. In a 110-103 Sixers win, Embiid dropped 26 points, on 8-of-17 shooting, and nine boards in just 28 minutes of action. He added a defensive highlight as well, sending away a Marcus Morris shot that threatened to cut into Philly’s lead late in the fourth quarter, just moments after he and Morris scuffled underneath the Clippers basket.
Philadelphia built on its dominance at home this season, tallying its 25th win at the Wells Fargo Center—which ties Milwaukee for most home victories. In Philly, the Sixers are 25-2; away, they’re just 9-19. They outscore opponents by 10 points per contest at their own gym, compared to a five-point deficit per night on the road. As evidenced on Tuesday, Embiid is a big part of why the Sixers feast on home cooking.
Embiid works the crowd like a professional wrestler. It doesn’t matter that he might have momentarily turned heel; he has enough charisma to draw fans back in. Some Sixers fans cooled on their franchise center following a four-game losing streak earlier this month, with some pundits taking umbrage with Embiid’s supposed self-shushing. Embiid, the thinking went, was a distraction. He didn’t care about winning, and he didn’t care about the team, and thus, it was right to level him with scorn. But on a night when Ben Simmons was just as electric on both sides of the ball, if not more so, Tuesday’s game added credence to the belief that the Philly faithful appreciate Simmons, but adore Embiid. The big man was booed stepping onto the floor, so he threw it right back, and the interchange was rewarded with hysteria.
Having Embiid as your franchise centerpiece is a gift. His natural talent, offensive versatility, and seemingly ever-rising ceiling make him an asset for any team. But in the context of the roster built around him in Philadelphia, his play can, at times, leave something to be desired. Embiid was stellar against the Clippers, but for most of the night, he was the second-best Sixer on the floor. The big man might’ve set the tone for Philly with his attitude, but Simmons was its engine. The Aussie tallied a 26-point, 12-rebound, 10-assist triple-double in one of his best performances of the season.
At times, the Sixers offense looked unstoppable when Embiid sat and Simmons ran the offense. Embiid is hyper-talented on both ends of the floor, but when he plays, the ball moves through him, or around him, or with him in mind. When Simmons plays without him, it just moves. This season, in an almost equal share of minutes per game, Philadelphia scores five more points per 100 possessions with Simmons on the floor sans Embiid than when the two share it. With sole ownership of the spotlight on Tuesday, Simmons delivered. In 17 minutes with Simmons, and without Embiid, Philly outscored the Clippers by an absurd 25.3 points per 100 possessions. When they played together, that mark fell to a still-respectable 7.8. Even more promising, though, was how Embiid and Simmons managed to play off each other to carry the Sixers to a win against one of the league’s toughest outs. Philly still sits fifth in the Eastern Conference, but if it can get combined performances like the ones its two stars delivered on Tuesday, it won’t be long until it climbs up the pecking order.
Twice, Simmons managed to waltz to the rim after Embiid cleared the way with a bullying pick. In the second quarter, Embiid bulldozed Leonard out of the way, leaving Simmons an open lane to the hoop. In the third, he bodied Ivica Zubac into another zip code.
The victims changed, but the result was the same: two points for Philly, and a highlight to go with it. At their best, the Sixers are a force to be reckoned with. But far too often, they’ve been plagued: by Simmons’s lack of shooting range, by Josh Richardson’s and Al Horford’s lackluster shooting and inconsistent play, by Tobias Harris’s aversion to the spotlight, and by Embiid’s injury and drama. If what the Sixers showed against Los Angeles is real, though, and they manage to put it together consistently, there might not be a starting five that can match them.
Since he entered the league, Embiid has consistently doubled down on his antics. He taunted opponents like Andre Drummond, and belittled those who questioned his prowess, all to grandiose results. But as my colleague Haley O’Shaughnessy explored earlier this week, Embiid hadn’t been in the “asshole” mind-set that defined the first few years of his career all season. He was critical of himself when challenged by Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal. He was submissive in his comments to the press after Sunday’s win over Chicago. And in September, before the season started, he said he was done talking trash.
If his performance against the Clippers is any indication, he’s well on his way back to owning real estate in his foes’ heads. He’s a good asshole, now. Cross him at your own peril.