Joel Embiid may have just disproved the adage that you can't please everyone.
With a season-high 38 points in the Philadelphia 76ers' 115-109 win over the Boston Celtics on Thursday, the superstar center answered critics, delivered on his own pledge to improve and did it all while striking a difficult balance between aggression and patience.
This wasn't a sleeping giant awakening and stomping a village to splinters, which seems to be what many want from a player who often seems physically capable of doing...whatever the on-court equivalent is of village-stomping.
There were a few physically overpowering moments from Embiid as he handed the Celtics their first home loss of the season.
But he also exercised prudence, which must have been difficult given the circumstances. Because not only did Embiid have his and others' expectations to fulfill, but he also had an undersized and not particularly stout set of Celtics defenders in front of him. The temptation to bowl everyone over must have been strong.
Embiid resisted that urge and accepted repeated double-teams, moving the ball to open teammates and rarely forcing the issue in search of his own offense. He registered six assists and committed just a pair of turnovers on the night. Many of his ball rotations were a half-beat late, but that's been the case for most of his career, and it's long been true that the Sixers' crummy spacing makes for some tight passing windows.
Embiid also hit two of his three attempts from long range, shot 12-of-14 from the foul line (including several down the stretch that held Boston at bay) and closed the contest with one more instance of sheer physical force, this time on the defensive end.
It was a complete effort—one the Sixers, Embiid's critics and even the man himself would like to see every night.
But it's also important to note that it wasn't just Embiid throwing his weight around, playing every possession with manic intensity and bending the entire game to his will. That's for the best.
It's the middle of December, and while it seems fair to ask Embiid to improve on, say, the 45.8 percent he was shooting from the field coming into the game, it's unreasonable to ask for full-bore, play-like-your-life-depends-on-it rage all the time. While that'll probably disappoint those that want Embiid to overwhelm from start to finish, it's just not worth it—to him or his team.
If we know one thing about the Sixers during Embiid's tenure, it's that they're basically sunk without him. Al Horford's presence has helped the Sixers avoid getting smoked when Embiid sits this year, but let's not gloss over the fact that Embiid was a plus-21 on Thursday...in a game his team won by six points.
Last season, the Sixers' net rating was plus-7.6 with Embiid on the floor and minus-3.5 when he sat. The more the games matter, the more Embiid matters. We saw proof of that during the 2019 postseason, when the Sixers crushed opponents by 143 points in Embiid's 334 minutes but were outscored by 107 points when he sat.
The Sixers are two different teams. One, a contender. The other, something far less than that. The difference is merely Embiid's presence on the court.
With that understood, the way Embiid played on Thursday was doubly encouraging.
Sure, he dove on the floor more than once and leveraged his strength, taking contact and absorbing hacks inside. But he was mostly under control. It was measured dominance. If there's a safe way to throw your weight around, Embiid found it.
Now, there's a broader question to ask here about whether it's possible for a player to summon killer instinct from night to night or play to play. Maybe that's a switch that can't be flipped.
Can the Sixers take the long view and preserve a player with a foreboding injury history while still encouraging him to obliterate on command? For that matter, can Embiid figure out how to be a wrecking ball just often enough to do damage without eventually getting wrecked himself?
The way he played on Thursday suggests it's possible.
Of course, now that Embiid has shown he can strike that incredibly delicate balance, we'll all probably expect him to do it every night. The bar's raised. The giant has to stomp out the village without so much as stubbing a toe.
Maybe the adage will stay true after all. You really can't please everyone.