Joel Embiid commanded the room even as he was leaving. He pumped his fist. He shadowboxed. He elicited a long roar and an “MVP” chant from a fired-up Wells Fargo Center crowd.
The raucous reaction wasn’t in response to a miraculous play the Sixers big man had just made on the court. In true Philly fashion, it was in response to a fight between him and fellow young NBA star center Karl-Anthony Towns that turned into an all-out brawl, ended with both players getting ejected, and could lead to suspensions.
“It is probably the loudest I ever heard them,” Embiid said of the crowd. “But that is what the city of Philadelphia is about. You come in here and have to fight and play hard. You have to be gritty.”
Looking ahead, the boiled-over tension between two of the league’s brightest young players signified something more meaningful than a fan frenzy: Even when Embiid’s not at his best, even when he’s not putting up 36 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, and three steals as he did earlier in the week, Embiid is a weapon powerful enough to change the game with intangibles.
In Wednesday night’s 117-95 win over the previously unbeaten Minnesota Timberwolves, Embiid not only helped lead his team to its first 4-0 record in 18 years, but he also dominated Towns with his physicality and intensity.
Embiid recorded 19 points and five rebounds in 20 minutes of play, and Towns logged 13 points and 6 rebounds in 23 minutes.
Yet the Sixers center looked like Embiid 2.0 in the way a stat sheet can’t fully show.
He outplayed Towns, who had seemed to be progressing on both ends of the court through his first three games. He was averaging 32 points and 13 rebounds, ranking third in the league in both categories, and sinking three-pointers.
Before Wednesday, Towns didn’t want to talk about Embiid, who’d also elevated his game by losing 20 pounds and amping up his oft-scrutinized conditioning in the off-season. In the past, Embiid and Towns’ meetings had been intense, and they’d even traded jabs on social media.
Towns didn’t want to talk about Embiid postgame, either, deflecting every question about the brawl by repeatedly saying, “It’s a competitive game.”
What does he think about the history of tension between him and Embiid?
“I think [reporters] build it up,” Towns said. “I’m not here to sell links and clicks and papers. I’m here to win games.”
Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders gave Embiid a bit more credit, but downplayed the fight and indicated he thought Towns and Embiid were evenly matched.
Embiid “is physical. He got deep post position a couple times, and so did Karl,” Saunders said. “And that’s one of the reasons it’s a competitive game, a competitive matchup.”
It’s even more competitive with the imposing presence of 7-foot-2 Embiid. While fans cheered the fight, the ejection left his teammates with a different reaction.
Without Embiid, “it’s much tougher” to close out a game defensively, said Al Horford, who had 12 points and 16 rebounds.
While Embiid might have endeared himself even more to a rabid fan base, Horford said he’d like to see his teammate tone it down a bit.
Upon seeing the brawl, “I couldn’t believe it,” said Horford, who guarded Towns before the ejections. “It’s one of those things you don’t want to see in a game.” Horford said he knew both Embiid and Towns well, and hoped they would learn from the altercation.
Embiid didn’t show remorse, at least not right away.
Embiid said after the game that one of his skills is his ability to “get in people’s minds," and noted he only reacted to Towns’ throwing a punch.
“He didn’t connect. He threw it and didn’t connect,” Embiid said. “Maybe it would have turned into something different if he actually connected.”
Later in the night, Embiid, who said a few weeks ago he might stop talking trash, posted on Instagram, saying “a cat pulled on me tonight,” a reference to Towns’ initials, KAT, and indicating Towns’ mother was gesturing at the Sixer as he left the court. He listed the location for the post as Broad Street Bullies Pub.
Towns replied by posting unflattering pictures of Embiid to his Instagram story in a series he titled “All Bark and No Bite."
As for lessons learned, Embiid said the fight showed him just how tight-knit the team is.
While Embiid and Towns tussled to the floor, other Sixers piled on, with Ben Simmons ultimately holding Towns down in what looked like a headlock (referee Mark Ayotte told a pool reporter the officials deemed Simmons a “peacemaker” in the ordeal).
“I know they have my back ... That is what I love about this team,” Embiid said. “We love each other. We love playing with each other. We have our backs. It goes beyond basketball, so it is great to see and it goes a long way.”
In close-up replays of the fight, Towns hits the floor with his hand, as if to tap out.