When Joel Embiid plays until the final buzzer, that is the norm.
On a night with no garbage time, Embiid scored 41 points, drew 15 free throws, made the opposition regret many of its all-out double teams, and led the Sixers to victory.
The reigning MVP helped his team beat the defending champion Nuggets (and reigning Finals MVP Nikola Jokic) on Tuesday and the Sixers improved to 23-6 this season in his appearances.
Not ho-hum by any means, but also not an extraordinary personal performance fueled by a deep, bitter rivalry.
“It’s not like I just woke up and said, ‘OK, I’m going to try to go at (Jokic) and try to have 40 or 50.’ I try to do it every single game,” Embiid said. “My goal is whatever it takes to win. Sometimes it’s scoring a lot of points and sometimes it’s being the best defensive player in the league.
“I don’t think my mindset was any different. My mindset is always that it doesn’t matter who’s in front of me; they’re going to get it. I’m going to try to be as dominant as I can, and the result is the result.”
It is eminently reasonable to begin with Embiid and shine the spotlight brightly upon him. Despite often sitting out entire fourth quarters in blowout wins, he’s posted at least 30 points in 18 consecutive games. With the game tied at 113-all Tuesday, he scored 10 straight.
Embiid will happily score against whatever sort of defense he sees — zealous, woeful, solid. Jokic guarded him fine on the left wing during that decisive run, but Embiid simply pump faked, jab stepped, created a little space to shoot, and drained his third three-pointer of the evening.
The two superstar big men shared some jovial words postgame.
“He came over and we just hugged it out,” Embiid said. “It’s funny because Twitter, they have a war going on between Philly fans and Denver fans. And it’s funny because both of us, it’s like, ‘Who cares? We just want to play basketball and win some games.’ … Until you knock them down, that’s the best team in the league. And he’s the Finals MVP. So until someone else takes that away, you can’t claim that.
“But then again, I also believe in myself. I’ll keep at it. I’ve just got to get there.”
On essentially every night that Embiid’s available, his teammates’ statistics are less brilliant. Several of those outings against Denver are worth highlighting, too.
Tyrese Maxey wasn’t his usual self in the fourth quarter, but the 23-year-old still finished with 25 points, nine assists and one turnover. Tobias Harris scored 24 points on 8-for-10 shooting, including eight important points early in the fourth, and he gave the Sixers good, physical defensive possessions on Jokic. Embiid’s passing always looks a bit better when players like Harris sink catch-and-shoot jumpers.
After a November win in Brooklyn, Embiid called Nicolas Batum “the key” and “special.” Those labels still don’t sound preposterous.
Although Batum is a skillful veteran, he’s consistently boosted the Sixers with hustle. During Tuesday's third quarter, he found himself along the cameras on the baseline after sprinting as hard as he could to break up a long-distance pass. He got right back in the play and blocked Jokic inside.
Murray, who was tailed by Batum for much of the game, scored zero of his 17 points in the fourth quarter.
“I think he gives us a good, annoying defender up the floor,” Sixers head coach Nick Nurse said of Batum. “I think that guys would just as soon not have to go through that for the whole game, right? … He’s going to not take many shots, but he’s going to make some impact threes — and he’s also a really good passer. He really fits good.”
Batum has acquired ample wisdom since his 2008 NBA debut (and his 2007 FIBA U-19 World Cup matchup against Beverley).
“Whoever you guard that’s the best player, he’s going to get his 25 shots anyway,” Batum said Sunday. “You won’t stop that. Maybe one night (you will), but he’s going to find a way to get his shots anyway. The thing is you’ve got to make them work. … Make them take the hardest shots possible. Some nights, yeah, they’re going to kick your butt — because they’re good.
“But any time I step on the court, I’m going to guard. Like (De’Aaron) Fox … I’m going to try to make him work, push him to his weak hand. And he’s fast, too. It’s tough, but you can’t really rely on trying to stop them from shooting the ball because it’s not going to happen.”
As a player who legitimately defends everyone from speedy point guards to 7-foot centers, does Batum have any preferences?
“No,” he said with a smile. “I just hate them all.”
He’s at least never asked to defend Embiid these days.