Making sense of Embiid’s legendary game
The power of atypical possession.
That phrase kept ping-ponging from my right brain to left while rewatching Joel Embiid’s historic performance against the Utah Jazz. The Power of Atypical Possession: When injuries, rallies, blowouts, or situational matchups suddenly dictate that a team’s offense will stem from a player in a high-use atypical position.
Specifically: when a three, four, or five unexpectedly cosplays a one. (Yes, the pun was intentional. Apologies.)
Shooting guards and combo guards do not know this particular power. A forced two to one duty is always fun to watch. In my opinion, it’s even more rewarding to see a classic play both, just to see a dealer think, “score first.” But guards are more used to switching roles… so the differentiation isn’t as dramatic.
But when you suddenly hand over the keys to an entire game – or a list of games – to a small forward, power forward or centre? It is then that the power of atypical possession is revealed. In the rare case where, for an entire game. the ball is brought across the half court, then placed in the hands of a big man at the top of the sideline? There is electricity.
Even through a TV screen, I can feel the adrenaline rush of this big one.
I watched a miniaturized version of this peak late last week when America’s team, your Washington Wizards, handed the keys to Kyle Kuzma and watched him lead an upset against the Mavericks. In this contest, Kuzma usage increased from 25.4 to 33.3. Kuzma rewarded You/Us Wizarding Faithful with 36 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and five 3-pointers. (PS: Mr. Leonsis, this is Kuzma’s contract year. Please budget accordingly.)
Kuzma’s Night is a good, actionable example of the power of atypical possession. Because some may co-sign Embiid’s explosion with the age-old “let the big man eat” philosophy. It’s a different dynamic. It’s simply passing the ball to the said big one, while lighting the green light to shoot.
There is a correlation; rewarding a great for his dirty work with shot attempts does indeed provide a holistic high playing advantage on both sides of the pitch. Watch Rudy Gobert this season, and you’ll see that dynamic in action. There is electricity there too; just at a lower power.
(If you’ve ever been a glue guy, glue girl, or glue them on a team, you might know this lower power. I was proud to be a glue guy on a winning team , compared to a starter on a mediocre team.. And the rare instances where I was suddenly instructed to switch from tackle to ball carrier or change the PF from diving to the ground to run the pieces for me? still remember those flare-ups, three decades later.)
But when are the keys handed over to truly mind-blowing talents like Embiid? History enters the realm of the possible. And when does said talent really feel it? Like, say, the joys of putting 15 pounds lighter on a bad wheel, thanks to a case of stomach flu, you might have a chance to witness the sublime.
I have my own idea of when Embiid really feels it: it blurs the relationship between time and space. Dropping those 15 pounds activated Embiid’s time-stretching superpower.
Watch this game again. You will see Embiid time stretched around 15-20 times. It’s easier to see when Embiid unleashes his mid-range jumper, a few yards from one of the low post blocks. When Embiid is on, there’s that extra snag in his sweater. This happens just before he comes down, right after he kicks his legs as if to provide another split second of airtime. Generational players, whatever their position, have this ability to master time.
(You Sixers fans may be familiar with the NBA’s most legendary time-shifting example: Dr. J’s reverse shot/scoop in the 1980 Finals. Time-shifting occurs when Erving extends his flight time and drifts under the panel, reappearing to shoot the other side of the rim. Still breathtaking, 40 years later.)
“Sublime” is one of those words that I see misapplied with alarming frequency in the TikTok era. Well, Gen Z, here’s a good definition: 59 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, seven blocks, one 3-pointer, one steal, 24 free throw attempts, 76.5% true shooting percentage, and a use of 53.3.
(And keep in mind, this was the second game in a row, in which Embiid delivered 42 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, two steals, two blocks, a 65.5 TS% and save percentage. use of 41.5. That, youngsters… that’s sublime overall.)
Joel Embiid is a permanent candidate for the title of MVP. A big one with a once-a-decade skill set. I have always appreciated his spirit. His willingness to occasionally express his passion and vulnerability (see: Embiid’s reaction to Kawhi Leonard’s circus closing buzzer in 2019.) He has a history of registering high usage. But going from 37.8 use over the season to 53.3? Even Russell Westbrook would blush.
Embiid’s score in the Sunday night box was an instant high. One of the top 10 single-game box scores in NBA history. I knew that, because after rewatching the game, I immediately jumped from NBA Season Pass to Basketball Reference, to check out the top 10 single-game scores in NBA history. There you go, seventh overall: Joel Embiid, score 54.40, 11/13/2022.
An active NBA player has a higher score on the list: James Harden’s 56.60 for the Rockets in 2018 ranks fourth overall. First overall: 64.60 from Michael Jordan, posted 3/28/1990. Jordan’s record is just one point ahead of a performance I was lucky enough to witness in person: Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game on 01/22/2006.
I maintain that I lost 10% of hearing in my left ear due to crowd noise. I also maintain that it was worth it. I still remember the slow, magical recognition that a sleepy matchup against the Raptors was turning into something I would tell my grandkids about.
But that game was Bryant going 11-23; he was not changing his role or his approach. Bryant really, really felt it. Maximize and super-duper-size their role as daily alpha on a mediocre team. Still historic, sublime and out of body… but not out of position like Embiid’s performance.
Starting next season, we’ll likely have a better chance of seeing the Atypical Historical/Sublime Power of Possession…according to Victor Wembanyama’s Ultimate Destination City.
Until then, on occasion, file an extra mental note of appreciation for players like Embiid and a league like the NBA.
For this writer? When players activate the power of atypical possession and rise to the sublime – like Embiid against Utah – the NBA still sounds fannnntastic; the only hobby still capable of erasing the ravages of an average middle-aged day.