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June 15, 2021

Joel Embiid deserves better than this

All it took was one off night from the Sixers big man for some to begin questioning him.

The Sixers big man and 2021 NBA MVP runner-up Joel Embiid played one of the worst games we've seen him play during recent seasons — and arguably the worst he's ever played in the playoffs — in Game 4 on Monday night, finishing just 4-for-20 from the field for 17 points, well below the 35 per game he'd been putting up so far in this series. 

But that's OK. He's only human after all, even if that's easy to forget while watching him play on most nights. Monday night, however, was not most nights.

It was particularly hard to watch in the second half, as a clearly-not-100% Embiid went 0-for-12 from the floor, the worst shooting half of any player in NBA postseason history. That was at least understandable — or it should've been — given that the Sixers big man is playing through partially torn meniscus that flared up on him early in the game and caused him to miss some time in the first half. Embiid looked good in the initial minutes following his return to the floor, but that changed coming out of the halftime break.

Still, despite the injury and him looking far from his normal self, Embiid played 36 minutes in Game 4, grabbed 21 rebounds and continued to be a disruptive force on the defensive end. The offensive end, admittedly, was a different story.

And sure, it was a night when the team could've really used your typical Embiid performance to all but put the Hawks away. Heck, even a 70% night out of the big man would've been enough to get the job done in this one. But that clearly wasn't possible on Monday.

The end result, in a season full of masterpieces, was one bad game for a hobbled Embiid. That translated into a poor game overall from the Sixers, who failed to see any other player really step up and fill the scoring void left by Embiid's off night. 

And, despite still being one last-second shot from making the entire city forget about the previous 47 minutes, this is what Embiid got to wake up to Tuesday. 

Sorry, I'm going to need a minute here.

Nope. Didn't work. Let's do this.

For starters, the dude isn't just hurt. He isn't playing through some small bruise in his knee or a rolled ankle. He has a goddamn torn ligament in his knee, a knee that is responsible for supporting and bracing a massive 7-foot-2, 280-pound body that does things no body at that size should be capable of doing. Moreover, since the start of this series, he's averaging 35.8 minutes per game, well above his regular season average of 31.1. And until Game 4, he'd been absolutely dominant.

Then, after one bad game, you tweet that? 

I can only assume that this was based off a conversation Angelo Cataldi and Co. were having on air — although that does not make it any better, even if they were putting things in the some context and suggesting that the premise of their poll was a bit over-the-top and reactionary anyway. 

[It's worth noting here that I was not listening to the show at the time this tweet went out, and I actually like the WIP Morning Show crew quite a bit. This tweet could've easily come from the other station and I would've written the exact same story.]

But that's not how it appears on Twitter, where context is an afterthought of an afterthought. It just pops up like, "Hey, you think this guy who has been playing through massive amounts of pain is faking it?"

I'm sorry, what?

You might think you're sports radio and this is schtick and no one should be taking you seriously in the first place. But that's the problem. Either you're so unaware that you don't know that a certain segment of the fanbase takes everything said on the radio quite seriously. Or worse, you know what you're doing and you do it anyway because this, right here — my column about how ridiculous your poll is and all the other negative reaction coming back at the station — was the actual goal of this poll in the first place.

The results of the poll, however, were much more disheartening than the fact that it simply existed in the first place, with nearly 30 percent of voters (as of 11 a.m. on Tuesday) agreeing with the idea that Embiid is somehow making his injury look worse. Why he would be doing that — and what he might stand to gain from it — remain a complete mystery. But that apparently won't stop a fanbase from wildly speculating about the health of someone they really don't know at all and suggesting that that's the reason the Sixers are coming back to Philly tied 2-2 with the Hawks. 

If you wanted to rip Embiid for his Game 4 shooting? Fair game. For reverting to some old habits? Also fair, as Doc Rivers did postgame and Kyle Neubeck did in his "Five likes and dislikes" column.

The older, wiser Embiid was nowhere to be found on Monday night. He shot the ball poorly, responded by trying to shoot his way out of it, and completely lost sight of the team concept during perhaps the worst offensive half of his playoff career. Embiid's 0/12 mark from the field in Monday's second half represents the most shots any player has taken without a make in the last 25 years of playoff games. He was that bad.

Embiid's ability to do just about everything on offense carried the Sixers through a lot of this season, with cold shooting stretches for teammates masked by his insane shotmaking ability inside the arc. He is the team's best player and deserves to carry himself that way. But there's a difference between remaining confident and getting tunnel vision, unaware of everything happening around you. Instead of using the attention he draws to get the ball to open teammates, Embiid just tried to power through on his own.

It would also be fair to question Embiid's teammates for not being more aggressive down the stretch — Ben Simmons, despite seeing his big man struggle, only managed to put up one shot in the second half, a stark contrast to the aggressive Simmons we saw in the second half of Game 3. Or any number of things that went wrong in this one. 

More likely, this is a product of our obsession with finding a singular scapegoat, someone we can blame for how we feel and then move on. Don't believe me? This one came just a few hours later. 

It's a security blanket for fans, being able to pick a singular issue and say, "Yup, that's it. If we can just fix that in time for next game, we'll be fine." It's a talking point that people can debate on the radio. It's a way to generate calls, a strawman argument masquerading as a majority opinion. 

And yes, this team typically lives and dies by their big man, but they're deep enough that they should be able to get contributions from others when their big man is having an off night. That, in part because Embiid insisted on continuing to throw up shots on a night when he clearly didn't have it, didn't happen in Game 4, and as we outlined above, that's more than fair criticism.

But what isn't fair is questioning Embiid's effort, or whatever that disastrous WIP poll was trying to get to the bottom of. We all have bad days, even when we give maximum effort. Maybe that's simply what this tweet is: someone's bad day.

Let's hope that's all it is.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin

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