Joel Embiid Didn’t Get The Officiating Memo

Joel Embiid was playing the best ball of his career when he got hurt. He’d tuned his mid-range shot to outrageous efficiency, sustained more night-to-night intensity as a rim protector, and appeared on course to repeat as MVP. Then he suffered a meniscus injury to his left knee and required surgery in early February. While this removed Embiid from consideration for all the big awards with a 65-game minimum, it was still nice to see him return Tuesday night, leading the Philadelphia 76ers to a tense 109-105 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, in a game where both teams were missing their key players. Basketball audiences were once again treated to the characteristically heart-pounding and charismatic sequences that only Embiid could produce, like this:

And also this:

And crucially, this one that let Philly put the game away:

While Embiid was out, NBA officiating has been supposedly healing, too. Scoring and fouls have both dipped slightly in the new year. The NBA media has had a lot to say about this trend—Tom Haberstroh recently wrote about the “free throw drought”—and while the fouls in greatest decline are not quite the ticky-tack shooting fouls one might have hoped for, there’s clearly something afoot. In March, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski got his hands on a memo sent from the league office to teams, describing new areas of emphasis for officials: “offensive players hunting out fouls and veering off pathways to the basket into defenders.” They might as well have sent the memo directly to Embiid, an unfathomably skillful, nimble, and colossal man who has chosen to play basketball with the spirit of a IRS auditor.

Officiating might have changed for the rest of the league in Embiid’s absence, but the reigning MVP returned to competition and enjoyed the generous whistle of old. Even if no one else is allowed to do this anymore, Embiid can still step in the general direction of the basket, flash his arms into the defender, drop the basketball, and gesture hammily with both hands, pretending that he had even the faintest intention of shooting the basketball, when in fact this was his ultimate goal all along. It’s one thing for a little guy like Trae Young to resort to such dastardly tactics; it’s harder to digest when one of the biggest humans in the world is cosplaying as a smol bean. I’d forgotten quite how tedious this can be to watch over the course of a whole game.

Even if the league has changed, Embiid was allowed to pick up where he left off. He was 12-for-12 on free throws, padding out his 24 points (on 6-of-14 shooting from the field), six rebounds, seven assists, three steals, and six turnovers in 29 minutes. Embiid understandably looked depleted all night, planting his hands on his knees and taking his usual little catnaps on the floor after every fall, but still had enough energy to make the winning defensive play. With 30 seconds left in regulation, he picked the ball clean out of a misguided Josh Giddey crossover, led the fast break, and veered directly into Chet Holmgren’s chest, earning the inevitable blocking foul call, which the Thunder unsuccessfully challenged. Nobody in the building really believed that fast break would end in a sincere shot attempt, and sure enough, it didn’t. We’ll see how long this quick whistle lasts—or, put differently, how long it takes Sixers fans for the paranoia to set in.

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