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May 11, 2022

Joel Embiid says he hasn't been himself and the Sixers can't afford that

MIAMI — It doesn't take a specialist to see what anybody with two working eyes can see: Joel Embiid is not himself. It would be difficult for anybody to resemble the best version of themselves with an orbital fracture, a usable but damaged dominant hand, and the weight of a franchise on their shoulders. Staring him in the face, he looks more like a boxer than a basketball player, dented and swollen in all the wrong places.

Unfortunately, setting all that to the side is the assignment in this series, so long as he is out on the floor to accept it. He knows, far better than anyone else could, that the position he is in doesn't have an easy or convenient out for him to take.

"It's just about pain tolerance. This is a lose-lose situation for me. If I don't play, I probably get called soft. If I play and I play bad, probably come up with a bunch of stuff that's, I guess he's just not good enough," Embiid said. "So it's all about, trying to stay, not get too high or too low, just going out there and really try to dig very deep and try to do whatever I can."

"If I say that I'm feeling a certain way, it's probably looked at as excuses. If I don't say anything, it's probably looked [at] as, well, he must be fine. I don't have an answer. Y'all know what's going on, I'm really just pushing through it."

The easy paths to take here are, funny enough, the extremes Embiid mentions. You can lambast Embiid for not living up to his standards as a player, noting that if he's on the floor and available to suit up, that's enough to hold him accountable for how he handles himself.

For that approach, you need only to look at Philadelphia's dismal rebounding as an area where Embiid fell short in a horrific Game 5 loss, pulling down just five boards across 33 minutes. It's an ugly number with tape that was often even uglier, Embiid floating through time and space while the Heat created second chances and buried the Sixers with one effort play after another.

We can acknowledge that when this play happened, Embiid was only a couple of in-game minutes removed from being hit in the head/face, on the floor in pain with everyone taking deep breaths. We can also acknowledge that this is bullshit effort — forget putting a body on someone, Embiid doesn't bother to even get his arms up to prepare for a rebounding opportunity. A role player does this, and they're getting a foot in their ass on the way back to the bench. 

No one on the Sixers, Embiid included, is inclined to tell you their effort in Game 5 was good enough.

"They were just more physical. We didn't run anything, we didn't run our stuff very well, we played at a snail's pace. I think what did we have, 83, 85 shots? We turned the ball over. I mean, everything they did tonight was harder and better," Doc Rivers said Tuesday. "Their stuff was better than what we ran, their energy was better, their toughness was better, I haven't said that very often about us and that's on all of us. That's on me to make sure they're ready, and that's on them to be ready. Tonight, we were not."

"We didn't play hard, we didn't follow the game plan, it was just too easy for them offensively. We didn't move the ball. I don't think we shared the ball like we have been sharing the ball," Embiid added. "We just got to be locked in and play like we played the last two games before this one."

There is also the human side of this, the realistic side of this, even. What was the best-case scenario for Embiid returning in this shape to a series against a tough opponent? He is in only slightly better shape than Monty Python's Black Knight, fortunate to still have his limbs attached and his vision semi-coherent. Even in this state, Embiid's presence was enough to shift the state of the series for two games at home. Can you really ask more of him?

It is a sad story, the only sort of story Embiid ever seems to end up in when it's all said and done. It's one injury after another, one wonky team after another, one unfortunate mishap that follows the last absurd event in franchise history. He has lived through multiple lost seasons, great personal loss, the league-influenced intervention of the front office, the new (now old) front office disparaging him from behind burner accounts, his co-star abandoning the responsibility to develop his game and the responsibility to be a teammate, period. 

What he's left with is what you see. This is a team with a co-star that has only sporadically been able to live up to that moniker; a team that soars and crashes based on a second-year guard's highs and lows; a team whose two most reliable bench players have been unplayable for at least half of this five-game set. In the best of times, it's a team this dude can carry. I would hardly call these the best of times.

The truth in all this is somewhere in the middle of the dueling narratives, somewhere between those who would put Embiid in bubble wrap and run home with their tails between their legs, and those who are ready to tear No. 21 a new one for having the guts to play through his pain. He must be better, and the rest of the group must understand that there is a firm limit on how much better he can be.

Even with Embiid in this compromised form, the Heat are committing extra resources to stop Embiid from getting the ball. That's the sort of power he has as a player, and to Miami's great credit, they are making it extraordinarily difficult for Embiid to get the ball in the first place, something he will tell you himself.

"You see how they're guarding me," Embiid said Tuesday. "They're really not allowing me to catch the ball, it's hard for me to have the ball in my hands."

With Bam Adebayo fronting him and Miami having another defender looming to clog his airspace, completing an entry has proven to be difficult. And both sides of that equation have issues — Danny Green airmailed a pass in brutal fashion in the first half, and on the next possession out of a timeout, Embiid waited for an Adebayo tip of a pass that never came, watching the ball bounce harmlessly out of bounds.

By the third quarter, he found a way to get rolling individually, though there are several caveats to that fact. For one, a lot of that success (all of it, really) came with Dewayne Dedmon in the game, Miami taking a softer approach without Adebayo on the floor to weaponize. And while there have been times this season where you could attribute more success to deeper post touches, that wasn't the case during this stretch, Embiid winning with attacks starting from the perimeter or the nail.

The Heat, it's fair to assume, are not going to change their defense and open the paint up so that Embiid can go one-on-one with Adebayo. This way they've chosen has earned them the 3-2 lead in the series and a version of Embiid that only partially resembles the MVP finalist, which is a great outcome on their end. That leaves the Sixers in search of solutions that don't start and end with Harden catching the holy ghost and raining fire on a defense that has played them to a standstill.

On Philadelphia's end, they keyed in on their defensive effort after Game 5, Harden delivering one of his best observations since arriving here.

"In the second round of the playoffs, on the road in Game 5, it's not good enough just to play hard," Harden said Tuesday. "You know what I mean? You got to play hard and you've got to be able to think, possession by possession. We just didn't put enough thinking possessions together." 

The Sixers, frankly, neither played or thought hard. But where I disagree with Harden and the rest of the group is that this game's issues did not start on defense. You can't realistically hope to play good defense with this personnel if you are constantly playing in a state of transition, running after turning the ball over or running after missing a shot. Shooting the ball well and scoring has led directly to their best defensive sequences in this series, and poor ball security and poor shooting have led to the opposite.

On Thursday evening, the Sixers will be faced with a win-or-stay-home opportunity that is strikingly similar to their 2019 Game 6 against the Raptors. They came off of a horrid Game 5 beatdown north of the border three years ago and rolled the Raptors in the following matchup, coasting to a double-digit victory that leaned toward blowout for a lot of the night. It is a reminder of how meaningless game-to-game results and performances can be in the playoffs, even in series played at a high level. Regroup, go home, and live to fight another day.

Unfortunately, Philadelphia's best player in that game three years ago was Jimmy Butler, the guy currently kicking their ass every which way. And Embiid, with as many strides as he has taken in the three years since that series concluded, is at the mercy of much more than poor entry passing, pressure defense, and whether Georges Niang has a pulse. He's locked in a fight with his own body, and his ability to ignore and persevere as it tells him he probably ought to be hanging out at home, letting his body rest and recover.

He will be afforded no such luxury until this season, this strange and somehow perfectly Sixers season finally comes to a close. He knows that. And so the big man must do what seems impossible right now — find a way.

"There's a lot going on, sometimes your body and whatever that's going on, as you know, just won't allow you to just be yourself," Embiid said Tuesday. "In those moments, you just got to keep pushing, hope for the best. At this point, it's all about just being there and just keep pushing."

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