Joel Embiid Is Persevering, For Good And Ill

Joel Embiid was lucky not to be ejected Thursday night from Game 3 of Philadelphia’s playoff series against the Knicks. In the first quarter, after failing to successfully flop against a bulldozing OG Anunoby, Embiid grabbed at the knees and ankles of Mitchell Robinson and yanked the New York center to the floor as he was jumping to dunk the ball. It was a dirty and unnecessary play, but the loose and frequently re-defined and -emphasized standard for an automatic ejection is “excessive” contact, which by tradition tends to mean different things depending upon whether the act in question is committed in early autumn or early spring. If leaves be yellow, keep it mellow; if leaves be green, go for the spleen.

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Zach Zarba, the game’s lead official, defended his crew’s interpretation of Embiid’s dangerous modified leg-sweep: “The unnecessary contact rose to the level of a Flagrant 1,” Zarba explained after the game, per the New York Post, “but we were unanimous that this did not rise to the level of excessive contact, unnecessary and excessive, which would have been a Flagrant 2 ejection.” Robinson, who missed most of four months of the regular season following ankle surgery, was uninjured on the play, or at least appeared so; Robinson stayed in the game and played a further 10 minutes of the first half, but was later ruled out with a sprained ankle and sent home in a walking boot. If Joel Embiid drags you to the floor in a playoff game on a play so dirty that even Philadelphia sports columnists consider it “downright evil,” probably you should consider rolling around and wailing and pounding the floor, if not biting down on a hidden cyanide capsule. The game was not quite eight minutes old; had Embiid been ejected there, the Sixers today would be dead as hell.

Embiid was not ejected. In the third quarter he caught fire and dropped 18 points on eight shots, to bring the 76ers from behind to ahead and then up by double digits. In the fourth quarter Embiid gained a very cheesy three-shot foul on Isaiah Hartenstein, sending New York’s only ambulatory true center to the bench and gaining a favorable matchup against the comprehensively overmatched Precious Achiuwa. From here Embiid became James Harden But Very Large, using his physical advantages mostly to force his way back to the stripe, where he made 12 free throws, two more than the total number of field goals that the 76ers attempted in game’s final frame. Embiid finished the game with a career playoff high 50 points on just 19 shot attempts; the Associated Press says this was the first time in NBA history that someone scored at least 50 points in a playoff game on fewer than 20 shots.

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Embiid is often pretty shameless, an opportunistic hooper who can and will shift into Unethical Mode as the moment suits him. Asked after the game about the Robinson play, he said he felt unsafe on the floor in that moment. “I was trying to make sure he doesn’t land on me,” he explained, of using his arms to lasso the legs of a large lumbering opponent and thereby causing that opponent to fall directly onto him. “Because obviously we know the history that I have with Kuminga landing on my knee. So I kind of had some flashbacks. It’s unfortunate. I didn’t mean to hurt anybody. It’s just, in those situations, I’ve got to protect myself because I’ve been in way too many situations where I’m always the recipient—the bad end of it.” But Embiid also said in the postgame that he and his teammates were making a specific effort to be the more physically punishing team in Game 3, after frankly doing a lot of whining earlier in the series about the Knicks beating them up. If the Robinson grab was some the former, it was also at least a little bit of the latter; by that point in the game, Embiid had already whacked Hartenstein in the dick and balls and then stampeded him in the open court, the latter earning an offensive foul.

You have to accept Embiid’s cheesiness, which even in the regular season rides the edge of acceptable gamesmanship, as a fact of life. Acknowledging it becomes the price of entry for the discussion you’d rather be having, which is about Embiid’s unbelievable gifts as a basketball player. And just as no discussion of Embiid’s exploits is complete without mentioning the cheese, you must always note, at this time of year, that Embiid is doing all this while visibly breaking down. His 18-point third quarter and subsequent parade to the stripe saved the 76ers from a loss that in all probability would’ve doomed their season, and he did all of this hobbling around with a bulky brace on his balky left knee. More strikingly, Embiid managed this historic performance while suffering from Bell’s palsy, a condition he’s been managing now for more than a week, and which started with persistent migraines in the days before the play-in game against the Miami Heat on April 17.

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“It’s pretty annoying with my left side of my face, my mouth, and my eye,” said Embiid at the Thursday post-game, hiding the sagging left side of his face as much as possible behind a pair of shades. “It’s been tough, but I’m not a quitter, so I have to keep fighting through anything. It’s unfortunate, that’s the way I look at it, but that’s not an excuse. I have to keep pushing.”

The third-quarter run was a maximum dose of the good Embiid. He fought for mismatches in the high post and dropped in smooth jumpers; he rumbled into the paint for a sweet layup; he bombed home closely contested three pointers, until his gravity finally yanked the Knicks entirely out of shape and the other 76ers found themselves pulled into Embiid’s groove. But it was impossible at all times to believe in the moment’s sustainability, and not just for the usual reason, that it always seems impossible whenever someone Embiid’s size is doing balletic things in an athletic competition. This is not far off from as crabbed as Embiid has ever been this time of year: He’s limping, he’s falling all the time, he’s trying to get away with being as stationary as possible, and half of his face isn’t working. Once again, for what seems like the seventh time in seven tries, there’s just no way to believe that Embiid will be upright long enough for the 76ers to reach the top of the mountain.

Even Embiid himself seems to sense it. “Every single year you start asking yourself questions like, ‘Why?’ Every single year, it’s very annoying. Maybe, it’s just meant to be,” he pondered after the win. “I just got to take it as it is. But the one thing I’m not going to do is give up. No matter what happens.” It would be inspiring if it didn’t imply more punishment to come. Good Embiid can absolutely lead the 76ers on a deep run. Bad Embiid will make whatever happens maximally infuriating. Crumbling Embiid will inevitably have the final say.

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