A highly anticipated matchup between two star bigs turned into a historic night for one of them. Joel Embiid dropped 70 points on the 76ers’ 133-123 win over the Spurs to set a franchise record previously owned by Wilt Chamberlain and further his candidacy to repeat as league MVP.
The duel everyone wanted to watch lived up to the hype early, as Victor Wembanyama and Joel Embiid traded buckets. San Antonio was also hitting threes, carving out a quick lead, that didn’t last long, as a couple of mistakes got the home team back in it. Compounding the issues, Wembanyama got in early foul trouble, which opened up the paint for Embiid, who dominated inside and on the offensive glass. With Wemby out, Devin Vassell aggressively looked for his shot and was effective, which helped the Spurs stay in it despite struggling to get stops. The bench did the same, getting enough buckets to avoid falling behind against an opponent that was not all that sharp on defense and surprisingly didn’t go constantly to Embiid, who got whatever he wanted from the start. After one, the Silver and Black were up one in a high-scoring game.
Wembanyama returned to start the second period while Embiid rested and he immediately went to work, getting the Spurs buckets and highlight plays. Unfortunately, the issues on defense and the boards remained, so whenever they had an empty offensive trip, they fell behind. Wemby picked his third foul, and it could have been the moment in which the 76ers pounced to create separation, but Gregg Popovich trusted the rookie and kept him in. After that, both teams made their adjustments in hopes of containing the other’s star big. Philadelphia did a better job of trying to deny Wembanyama the ball by letting Jeremy Sochan get all the room he wanted on the perimeter and the Spurs went into a zone at times and regularly sent help when Embiid had the ball. It didn’t matter. At the break, Embiid had 34 and Wembanyama 18 in just 14 minutes as the Sixers led by four.
Those wanting to see the duel continue in the second half got their wish, as both Embiid and Wembanyama remained in attack mode, but it soon became clear that there would be only one true protagonist on Monday. Embiid was just unstoppable. He dominated from the mid-range, the post, as a dive man in the pick and roll. The Spurs, which did a good job of not falling behind by too many even after Wembanyama got his fourth foul, just had no answers for the reigning MVP. They tried a zone. They tried Zach Collins and even Jeremy Sochan on him. Nothing worked. Nick Nurse kept finding ways to get him the ball and Embiid kept finding ways to get it through the hoop. San Antonio could have done a much better job of quickly doubling to force the ball away from the big man, but a few times in which they sent an extra man, Embiid made the right pass. It was just his night.
To their credit, the Spurs didn’t quit at any point. They trailed by 15 after three quarters and got it in single digits in the fourth. Unfortunately, their determination to keep fighting is what enabled a historic night from Embiid, as there was no reason to take him out of a game that was likely never in true jeopardy for Philadelphia, but it was also never a blowout. Wembanyama stayed on the floor after quickly picking up his fifth in the fourth, and he put the finishing touches to an impressive 33-point performance that was completely overshadowed by his counterpart’s brilliance. The rookie, if all goes as planned, will have his time to set records on a contending team while being serenaded with MVP chants, but on Monday, Embiid and the 76ers reminded him and the Spurs that there’s plenty of work to be done before that day comes.
- Tre Jones left the game with some kind of ankle injury, although it seems like it wasn’t serious. Hopefully he won’t miss time and will be able to continue to develop chemistry with Victor because the team looked infinitely better with him as the starting point guard and Tre was starting to figure out how to use the attention Wemby draws to drive to the rim.
Word out of the locker room is that Tre Jones is fine.— Tom Orsborn (@tom_orsborn) January 23, 2024
- Wembanyama and Devin Vassell looked like a strong one-two punch against the Sixers, which is encouraging. They combined for 55 points, 11 rebounds and 11 dimes. Both hit some threes and got to the line against a Philadelphia team that couldn’t stop fouling. Good game from those two.
- Julian Champagnie had 12 points in under 15 minutes and connected on all three of his outside shots. Jeremy Sochan had a rough game at times, as the Sixers dared him to shoot and Pop asked him to guard Embiid, but he did a little bit of everything, as always. The starting forwards did well.
- The backup forwards? Not so much. Doug McDermott moved well without the ball but made only three of his nine outside shots. Cedi Osman got just 11 minutes and didn’t make much of an impact. Keldon Johnson tried to be aggressive in the second half, after heading to the locker room due to a collision in the first half. The problem is Johnson sometimes confuses being aggressive with forcing things, which leads to eight-points-in-12-shots nights. Keldon is still adjusting.
- Poor Zach Collins. He’s still being asked to take those open straightaway threes on pick and pops that opponents concede fully knowing that he can’t make them consistently. He missed his five threes.
- Malaki Branham didn’t leave the bench while Blake Wesley logged almost 19 minutes. Wesley has earned his playing time. He was solid in his minutes against the 76ers and his tenacity on defense helps the team. It would still be a shame to see Branham be relegated to mop-up duty, especially since he struggled while playing out of position.
Play of the game:
Wembanyama has been doing much better operating in the perimeter after turning the ball over a lot earlier in the year on his drives. Plays like these are insane, but he makes them look easy.
Next game: vs. Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday
After five games on the road, the Spurs will kick off a seven-game homestand by facing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Thunder. Chet vs. Victor should be a lot of fun.