It’s Getting To Joel Embiid

Joel Embiid talked it but his face couldn’t walk it, and it must dawn on him by now that the light at the end of his tunnel is actually an 18-wheeler coming at him. Body language is largely the study of your own inbred biases using visual aids, but look at this and tell yourself he believes in his knee, in his teammates, or in the essential fairness of universe in general: 

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Let’s ignore his whining about the officiating only because that’s the new clichéd forfeit for everyone who loses a close game, and accept the fact that it really isn’t a time out Philadelphia didn’t get that caused this game to die the way so many Sixers postseason games go. Just look in his eyes … OK, just look at the top of his head, and the back of the hand trying to rub his memories out through his face.

Or look at how painful it is for him to play so remarkably (34/10/6 in 39 minutes) and have only Tyrese Maxey as reliable help. If this were the regular season Embiid would have been in civilian clothes, but because he adheres to the belief that if you can walk in April you can play in April, he gets dragged by Frederic Weis for being a bad Frenchman. He is America’s new tortured soul, the face of hell from one of its residents.

Two things must be said here. One, this is not Defector’s usual Philadelphia bias: We are not adopting Embiid the way we adopt Phillies en masse or commingle royal icons and Wilbert Montgomery. Two, we are not committed in any way to Embiid’s relationship to The Process as its only living descendant. All athletes are in a fiendish competition not with other players, teams, or ownerships but with their own sell-by dates, and Embiid is being roasted for playing hurt because he’s not playing better than he is. It seems like the top of his head is telling us what his hand enveloping his face is telling him: that he will never realize his dream of recognition as a champion because the Sixers are essentially cursed.

This franchise, with three championships in 75 years (one of them while in Syracuse) invented bottoming out, and while Sam Hinkie has escaped and Daryl Morey’s only real victory has been in finding someone to trade for the bag of corn chips known as Ben Simmons. But none of that is Embiid’s fault. His career is all about watching first the diminution of the center position and then its sudden return, not with his body but that of the couch-shaped megagenius Nikola Jokic. He is seeing that, or gives every indication of seeing that. He is seeing teams that aren’t his exchange the crown, from the Warriors to the Raptors to the Lakers to the Bucks to the Nuggets, and feeling the despair of thinking that at age 30 it isn’t ever going to be his.

Or maybe we’re just imagining all this because we think we can see inside his soul, and all he’s really saying here is, “Why don’t you go bother Nic Batum?”

But body language has no rules. Joel Embiid looks destroyed while sitting in a chair, and his posture is our playground. It’s why the playoffs are always better in the early rounds when success is still months away and happens only to a few, while failure has many faces. We can imagine that one of those faces is Embiid’s because he won’t let us see it—an easy-to-misconstrue visual, which is our favorite kind.

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