PHILADELPHIA -- After Trae Young buried a 3-pointer with a half-second to go in the third quarter here at Wells Fargo Center, the Atlanta Hawks led the Philadelphia 76ers 92-91 going into the fourth. A 21-point Sixers lead had evaporated, and the boos rained down upon the home team as it trudged back to its bench.
Then Joel Embiid took over. And before long, order was restored.
Thanks to a brilliant fourth quarter, in which he outscored the Hawks 22-20, Embiid finished with a career-high 49 points to go along with 14 rebounds, three assists, three steals and a block in 36 minutes, leading the Sixers to a 129-112 victory Monday night.
"We're all going to point to the numbers, and this and that," Sixers coach Brett Brown said afterward of Embiid, "but the bottom line is this: When he comes out with that activity, that energy, that mentality, he makes a statistician work. And we will win a lot of games."
While Philadelphia is without Embiid's fellow All-Star Ben Simmons -- the team said earlier Monday it will announce within 24 hours what Simmons' next steps will be in terms of dealing with an injured back -- it is going to need a lot more performances like this from its all-world center.
Ever since Embiid came out and announced he was going to get back to "doing whatever I want and saying whatever I want" after a win over the LA Clippers in Philadelphia's final game before the All-Star break, he has now had three massive performances in a row here. He had 26 points and nine rebounds in that game; 39 points, 16 rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals in an overtime win over the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday; and then Monday's dominant performance against Atlanta -- all sandwiched around a second straight dud in Milwaukee against the league-leading Bucks and MVP front-runner Giannis Antetokounmpo.
And as Embiid was tearing the Hawks apart Monday, he did it with the same kind of flash and flair he had made commonplace over the prior three seasons, before toning his act down for most of the first half of this season.
He repeatedly asked the crowd to get to its feet. After a huge dunk in the fourth quarter, he flexed his muscles and held the pose as he backpedaled down the court. And after hitting a 3-pointer with 32.2 seconds left to set his career high, he cupped his ear to the crowd as the cheers rained down on him.
"I said I was going to get back to having fun," Embiid said. "Having fun comes in different forms. I don't always have to be smiling or laughing all the time; I can have fun just dominating the game.
"Obviously, tonight was just one of those nights where I was having fun like the old days, just having fun with the crowd. Some nights, I might want to dominate and stay quiet, but it was cool. The most important thing was that we bounced back [from the Milwaukee loss] and got the win."
Embiid's theatrics on the court also caused a bit of controversy. After his final basket of the night was followed up by missed 3-pointer from Young -- who finished with 28 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists -- Embiid brought the ball upcourt and looked to run out the clock.
Hawks guard Kevin Huerter, though, had other ideas, and came in from behind Embiid and stole the ball away from him. As Huerter turned to bring the ball back upcourt, Embiid flashed a middle finger at Huerter on his way by.
"There was 24 seconds left in the game, and I was playing," Huerter told ESPN, saying he didn't see Embiid flip him off as he ran by. "He brought the ball up court. He was pumping up crowd before that, doing all the stuff he usually does, and he wasn't looking; so I went up and took the ball and got another possession. If he did it, I don't think that warrants that, but it is what it is."
Embiid apologized in his on-court interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia immediately after the game -- "I also want to say sorry for what I did at the end of the game. Y'all probably saw that on TV. I'm sorry" -- but he took a different tack in his news conference.
"There's always this thing about you shouldn't shoot the ball if you're up 20, something like that," he said. "I feel like it should go both ways too. I mean, I'm running the clock down and I feel like the game is over, that's why I'm doing it.
"But to me, if the other team is going to keep playing defense and they're going to keep shooting the ball at the other end, I feel like we should just be like, 'Well, be better next time,' and just go out and score. I thought about it when I had the ball again, but I was like 'Eh, I'm going to stay cool.'"
The big man was clearly feeling confident after the game, as his rambling news conference went in a few different directions. At one point, he was asked about his comments after Thursday's win over Brooklyn, when he made a comment about being the best player in the world after putting up 10 points and five rebounds in the untimed fourth quarter of the All-Star Game a few days prior.
"For sure," Embiid said last week. "The All-Star Game was fun. Being there in the fourth quarter, doing my thing at the end of the game, I thought it was great. But the All-Star Game, just proving I'm here, I belong, and being the best player in the world, I just intend to keep coming out every single night and just play hard and trying to get wins and just go out and try to win a championship."
After Monday's game, however, he argued that he was "misquoted" -- only to then argue the point again by saying he is in that conversation when he plays the way he did against the Hawks.
"Do a better job reporting," he said with a smile. "What I said was that All-Star Game fourth quarter, I'm out there with some of the guys that are considered the best players in the world, and I'm out there just dominating, being unstoppable, doing whatever I want, especially in the post. So to me, I just felt like that was a chance for me to prove that I deserved being in that conversation of being the best player in the world.
"That's what I said. But like I said tonight, if I play like that every night, like this, like I played tonight, what more can you say? I just gotta keep on doing it; I know I'm not, but I do believe it, because I got to prove it, I got to win. My goal is to win a championship; that's how you prove you're up there. I'm going to do everything I can to get to that point and win a championship."
Embiid also alluded to his on-again, off-again relationship with Philadelphia's fans of late. While Embiid was booed during the fourth quarter of an ugly home win over the Chicago Bulls on Feb. 9, he twice told the crowd to be quiet -- including once with an expletive. Then the next day, he went on social media and wound up having a back-and-forth with former teammate Jimmy Butler that only inspired more ire from the hometown fans.
And while the tenor of the conversation has changed since Embiid went out in his next game and was dominant in that win over the Clippers, it appears he hasn't forgotten the recent chatter that has been associated with him and Simmons and the potential future of their partnership.
"Well, they were still booing," he said after getting MVP chants during Monday's game. "They booed in the third quarter, but it's cool. [They're] passionate. I have a lot of love for them.
"It doesn't matter. They might have me in a lot of trade machines and all that stuff, they might boo, but it's still all love. We've had a very, very deep connection since I've been in Philly, and I've always appreciated everything they've done for me and all the love they've given to me."
"All I can do to kinda reward them is to try to get wins every single night by playing hard and doing my job," Embiid continued. "So that's what I'm going to keep on doing, and I'm sure they're going to stay happy."