PHILADELPHIA — Two teams with championship aspirations went head-to-head when the Philadelphia 76ers hosted the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night. The meeting was the first between the two teams on the season, and it served as a showdown between early MVP frontrunners in LeBron James and Joel Embiid. Heading into the evening, many pundits and fans alike viewed James and Embiid as the top two candidates for the league’s most coveted individual award a quarter of the way through the 2020-21 season, and they both demonstrated why over the course of the contest.
Ultimately, Embiid and the Sixers pulled out a thrilling 107-106 victory, thanks to a Tobias Harris game winner. So, let’s start with the big man from Philadelphia. Embiid has been an absolute force all season, and Wednesday night was no different, despite the fact that, on paper, the Lakers had some solid bigs to match up on him in Marc Gasol and Anthony Davis. Embiid didn’t seem to notice, or care though, as he established himself as a presence in the paint – and at the foul line – early and often.
In the first half of action, Embiid shot 10 free throws, while the Lakers shot 11 as a team. This stat was indicative of Embiid’s early aggressiveness, which carried over into the second half. In the end, Embiid finished with 28 points, six rebounds, four assists, and two blocks while he was a game-high +8 in a contest that the Sixers won by one point.
It wasn’t Embiid’s best game of the season, and he said as much afterwards, but it served as a solid showcase for his abilities on both ends of the floor. When Embiid first checked out of the game toward the end of the first quarter, the Sixers were up by 16. By the time he checked in again in the second quarter, that lead had dwindled down to six. That’s basically been the story of the Sixers’ season. They’re 13-2 when Embiid plays and 0-4 when he sits. He is just such a presence that he makes things infinitely easier for his teammates just by being out there. He’s done an excellent job of getting deep-post position early in possessions and handling double teams this season, and those adjustments have opened things up tremendously for Philadelphia.
Embiid set the tone for the Sixers on the offensive end Wednesday night with a couple of early buckets over Gasol. Embiid’s first basket was a smooth jumper over Gasol:
He quickly followed that up with another bucket over Gasol. This time, he put the ball on the floor, absorbed contact, and drew a foul on the Laker big while still knocking down the shot:
Both of these early possessions started with Embiid fighting for solid post position. He also went right at Anthony Davis in the guts of the game:
While he was great offensively, Embiid’s top highlight came on the defensive end, with a block on LeBron:
Embiid has already established himself as an elite NBA player, but past conversations about him often involved the word ‘potential.’ As in, he could be an MVP candidate if he buckles down and reaches his potential as a player. To this point in the current campaign, Embiid ranks fifth in the league in points per game (27.7) and seventh in rebounds per game (11.5). Plus, he leads the league in free-throw attempts per game (10.5). It’s still early but this sure appears to be the season that Embiid finally realizes all of his enormous potential.
On the flip side, James did everything that he could to keep L.A.’s road win streak alive. He played a game-high 39 minutes (despite the fact that he was the oldest player on the floor) and tallied 34 points, six rebounds, and six assists. In the process, James became the second Lakers player ever to have consecutive 30-point performances after turning 36 years old. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the other. This isn’t surprising, as James seems to make history virtually every night at this point in his storied career. The fact that at 36, and in his 18th season, James is at the center of the MVP conversation is insane, and a testament to his longevity. His full arsenal was on display in Philadelphia. He attacked the rim, exploited mismatches, and knocked down shots, like this one:
He also took it right at Philadelphia’s All-Star duo of Embiid and Ben Simmons:
Perhaps his most impressive play was this pass to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for a three with the Lakers down four in the closing minutes:
The Lakers couldn’t pull out a win in Philly, but certainly not because of a lack of production on James’ part.
James probably could have won the MVP award in any of the past 10 seasons, and the fact that he only has four to his name undersells just how consistently great he has been over the course of his career. He’s still dominating at this late stage in his career, which makes his performances even more impressive. It could also resonate with voters when it comes time to pick award winners later this year.
Thanks to their stellar play, Embiid and James both have their teams sitting at the top of their respective conferences. If that trend continues, the MVP Award could very well come down to one or the other, and who knows, perhaps we’ll even get a rematch of the 2001 NBA Finals.