The postseason is only four games old for the 76ers, but, despite a roster that is top-heavy with talent and personality, it is obvious that all of them, all of their opponents, and all of us, are mere moons orbiting the planet of Joel Embiid.
This does not qualify as a surprise.
Embiid hasn’t just been the center of attention, literally and figuratively, he has been the most compelling story nearly all the time, even when he isn’t playing. He is part of every plot twist, whether sharing a peek at Amir Johnson’s cell phone on the bench during a bad loss, or failing to stifle a postgame laugh when explaining how sorry he was to nearly separate Jarret Allen’s head from his neck with a swinging elbow.
It’s been one thing after another, all strung like party lamps held together by the tendons of Embiid’s left knee. Will he play? Is he questionable? Is he doubtful? Is he even in the building an hour before the game?
Embiid was scratched just 15 minutes before the start of Game 3, then returned to play despite similar doubts prior to Game 4, turning in a stat line that was otherworldly and, for the Sixers, entirely necessary.
That game also included another nasty swipe at Allen that was ruled a flagrant foul and set off a skirmish when Jared Dudley – Brooklyn’s clown prince of comedy – took issue with the play and charged into Embiid. Even if Dudley’s intent was to goad Embiid into retaliation, it wasn’t all that smart.
Now, what will be the tale for Game 5, a potential close-out game in this first-round series? It might be that the Nets have had enough. Jarret Allen probably has. But the outcome will likely once again have a lot to do with whether Embiid can play and how he plays if he does. No inkling emerged from Monday’s practice, of course.
“Got to keep ‘em guessing,” Embiid said.
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There is evidence that Embiid enjoys the drama of it all -- the guessing game, the attention, the sense that he is the hinge upon which the whole enterprise must swing. To a large extent, despite the presence of Ben Simmons – whose intrigue factor is only slightly less than Embiid’s – and fellow stars in Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, that sense is accurate. If the 76ers are going to play for a championship in the next few years, it will be because of the play, and the availability, of Embiid.
He does so much, and is still getting better. His physical play around the basket on offense is obvious, and when he hones his ability to find teammates when forced to pick up the ball, he will be that much more dangerous. As big as he is, he can also drift to the high post to set screens and clear the paint, and is even competent enough shooting from up there that defenses can’t capitalize as much on Simmons having no outside component to his game.
Defensively, he covers up for some shoddy on-the-ball perimeter defense that is one of the team’s weak points and, for want of a better word, he sets a tone. Great opponents will still drive traffic to the basket area, but even those will think twice about it.
Then there are the intangibles he brings, chiefly that he is kind of a goof and unpredictable, and his teammates delight in his simple presence. The guys on the other team don’t usually see it that way.
So, yeah, Embiid is all that. He’s the sort of hit that Sam Hinkie was talking about, the one who could offset the inevitable misses of the lottery strategy the former general manager devised. You live with the relative failure of Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, and Michael Carter-Williams to become transcendent players, if the flip side is two guys like Embiid and Simmons.
The question at the moment, made clear by the series that could conclude tonight, is whether Embiid’s legacy will be written by his immense talent or by his left knee.
The Sixers have won three games in the postseason thus far. To get to a championship round this year, they need nine more, including eight against teams that pose a degree of difficulty far superior to the Nets. That could take as few as nine games, or as many as 17, nearly a quarter of a regular season.
How many of those games will Embiid be able to play? How will the intersection of the tendinitis pain and his general lack of conditioning affect his availability? They have already won once without him, but that’s not a formula for lasting success, particularly given their options at center.
It’s probably going to be the story of the postseason, as Embiid seems destined to be, anyway. Panning back to a wider view, it is possibly going to be the story of several postseasons to come, and it makes you wonder.
The Sixers need to get lucky with the enormous bet the organization made on the big man. Sooner rather than later, they can win a championship based on that “if,” and it would be a blast to watch happen. They cannot win left with a “what-if,” however, and that would be a different kind of blast.