Joel Embiid's epic performance embodies new era of the NBA

The feats are more and more notable, the records getting written in pencil because it won’t be long before they are replaced by bigger numbers.

It’s the new age of the NBA, an era that almost requires a name as centers are launching 3s better than before — and just about better than anyone. Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns, proof of the NBA’s evolution from back-to-the-basket bruisers to versatile scorers, each had historic performances Monday — on the anniversary of Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game in 2006, no less.

By the time Embiid scored 59 of his franchise-record 70 points heading into the fourth quarter of the Philadelphia 76ers' win over the San Antonio Spurs, Towns was chasing him and closing fast — from 3-point line to 3-point line —putting up 44 at the half in Minnesota’s game against the Charlotte Hornets.

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - JANUARY 22: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers reacts after being showered with water after defeating the San Antonio Spurs at the Wells Fargo Center on January 22, 2024 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Embiid scored a franchise-record 70 points in the game. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Towns couldn’t keep up the 88-point pace, but still scored 62 in Minnesota’s distressing 128-125 loss at the Target Center, hitting his first eight triples of the night.

The last time two players had such a prolific night, it was in pursuit of the scoring title as David Thompson and George Gervin went toe to toe in the 1977-78 season finale, when Gervin needed to dig deep to wrest the title from the Skywalker.

Usually, 73 points — which Thompson scored in the afternoon — would do such a thing, but Gervin knew he needed 59 to win the title and responded by putting up 63 later that evening to cement himself in one of the game’s greatest duels.

That was over 40 years ago and it wasn’t some random night.

On this evening, and somewhere over the rainbow, Gervin’s basketball godson, Kevin Durant, was putting up 30 in the second half on his way to 43 overall, bringing the Phoenix Suns back from a 20-plus point deficit against the Chicago Bulls and capping it off with a double-clutch hanging jumper to give the Suns their final advantage with 1.6 seconds remaining.

You never know what you’ll see on a given night in today’s NBA, but perhaps you do with Embiid. His streak of games scoring 30 or more points extended to 21, but more than that, it’s indicative of the way his skills have developed since coming into the league a decade ago.

He doesn’t have the championships or multiple MVPs, but the reigning MVP has an almost unlimited array of shots and sweet spots on the floor. He’s almost automatic from the elbow, has 3-point range and can still play bully ball on the block.

His shooting touch rivals and perhaps exceeds his predecessors, like Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon. He’s on his way to his third straight scoring title, raising the bar every year.

Embiid’s 35 points per game average before Monday’s explosion, rivals former teammate James Harden’s 36.1 points per game in 2018-19 — the year Harden scored 30 or more in a record 32 straight games — and Bryant, who averaged 35.4 in 2005-06. It was the same season Bryant lit up the Raptors for arguably the greatest single game feat we’ve seen on film since there’s nothing on Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point night all those decades ago.

And Embiid’s night was perhaps fitting, considering the regard he holds for Bryant.

“From the time I started playing, Kobe was my guy. He's the reason why I started playing basketball,” Embiid said after the game. “And it's funny because on the same night [Kobe] had 81. And, you know, he was my favorite player, that’s the guy I was looking to.”

For context, Bryant did it in what feels like a much different NBA. It wasn’t the season Bryant had a streak of nine straight 40 point games, which was in 2002-03, but the NBA was much more bump-and-grind in those years. In 2003, the league average per team was 95.1 points per game. In 2006, a full year into the Suns’ revolutionary “Seven Seconds or Less” offense spearheaded by Steve Nash, the league average crawled to 97 points per game.

Only five teams averaged more than 100 points in the year Bryant scored 81. This season, no team scores fewer than 107.5 (Portland) and the Indiana Pacers average 125.

Maybe by the time Victor Wembanyama — the man who witnessed Embiid’s night firsthand and said he was inspired by it — is in full bloom, he’ll find himself exceeding these astronomical numbers.

“That just speaks to the volumes of talent in this league,” Giannis Antetokounmpo told Yahoo Sports Monday night in Detroit.

When Antetokounmpo heard what Embiid and Towns had done, he stopped in his tracks for a second on his way to the Bucks' team bus.

“On any given night, guys can score 50, 60, 70. Maybe someone can score 80 or 100. Don’t you think so?”

At first glance it sounds outrageous, but the more one considers it, it doesn’t feel so outlandish anymore.