Can We Ever Do Better Than Doubtful?
At least we got two games of pure joy.
Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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We got two playoff games of true happiness this year. In between the Everything Went Wrong win in Game One and the Everything Went *Really* Wrong loss of Game Four, we were gifted with two beautiful blue skies on a basketball court. Everyone was healthy. Everyone was humming. (Shake Milton gets the sin-eater's exemption.) Everything was pointing to the Sixers cleaning up in Game Four and watching the rest of the postseason's first round from their Rehoboth Beach house. For the first time in... longer than I've been watching the team, anyway... the Sixers were playing in a playoff series where there was absolutely no doubt that they were the better team. It was every bit as satisfying and rewarding as I dreamed it would be.
All I asked was that they stay healthy. My request was not granted.
Late in the first quarter of Game Four against Washington, Joel Embiid left the court to go to the Capitol One Arena locker room after taking a bad fall on a dunk attempt. He was ruled of the game with knee soreness and scheduled for an MRI yesterday, which the team provided no update on until -- basically at the last possible second -- leaking via Woj that he would be "evaluated further" today, while downgrading his status for tonight's Game Five in Philadelphia to "Doubtful." Sixers fans treated the update like a hologram baseball card, with exactly half seeing a no-news-is-good-news positive update and the remaining half seeing a frighteningly inconclusive report with little reassurance.
What we all are now, really -- is day to day. When the next piece of news comes, it seems unlikely that it will announce Embiid either as returning to play at full strength or as out for the remainder of the postseason. Much more likely is that it will be a Yes But or No But update, one that backs up Kyle Neubeck's sourced reporting yesterday of the Sixers feeling optimistic about their ability to handle Joel Embiid's health this postseason, but one that basically assures us that our time feeling comfortable in this Sixers team is now officially over for the postseason. That's life with an injury-prone player: Joel will be Doubtful until he isn't, and so will the rest of us. We should probably get used to it, if we haven't already.
It feels unfair. It feels cruel. It feels like something that should, at the very least, be appealable to a higher governing body. As Spike tweeted last night, Joel Embiid did everything right: He played brilliantly and played hard all season, but picked his spots during games, sat when necessary, and treated the last major injury he suffered in Washington with what Brett Brown would refer to as a "healthy fear," taking his time with his recovery and cruising a little to the end of the regular season after returning. And when the playoffs hit, he was once again magic, the kind of player whose dominance just starts being funny, with every jumper, dunk and block landing like a punchline and rimshot. He'd likely lost the MVP with his injury and underwhelming late-season performance, but now he was here, playing meaningful basketball, once again at the highest level we'd ever seen him, maybe just at the highest level, period. Every bit as much as a Sixers title run, this was what we had always wanted to see in the playoffs. It was fun. It was easy.
And now it's Doubtful. Not over, not done with, maybe not even entirely compromised -- but unsure, shrouded in worry, back on the precipice of outright disaster. That's how it's basically always been with us and Joel through seven seasons of season-ending surgeries, of meniscus tears and facial fractures, of strange aches and unpredictable illnesses, of incapacitated running mates and bad locker-room vibes, of reversions to bad habits and of re-evaluations forever three weeks on the horizon. We hoped, we prayed, we maybe even let ourselves believe that this year would finally be different. But now here we are again, bracing for mid-day status updates and gametime decisions, and knowing we'll probably be doing so for the rest of the playoffs (if we're lucky). It stinks.
It can be hard to find a silver lining in moments like this, when it feels like you're being punished simply for having the insolence to want good things. Truly, we can only imagine what Joel himself must be going through to be doing this again -- or even his teammates, who've gotten a taste of the confidence that comes with playing alongside an Embiid who isn't smothered in question marks. The only thing to really take solace in at these moments is that Doubtful is still better than Out, which is what the Sixers have been for the overwhelming majority of the 20 seasons since Allen Iverson refused to detour around Tyronn Lue. Embiid may never be able to upgrade us beyond Doubtful, but we're never totally Out with him either.
And even the Doubtful get lucky sometimes. Anthony Davis has been similarly injury-plagued throughout his career, inspiring a roughly equal number of oh no not again mouth covers and eye rolls over the course of his first seven seasons in the NBA. It seemed at many points like he might never be fully right for long enough to play truly meaningful basketball at the highest level. That is, until last year -- when in his first season in Los Angeles, he played 62 of a possible 71 regular season games, and then 21 of a possible 21 playoff games, putting up otherworldly numbers throughout and winning the NBA championship. Then this year, he got hurt a bunch again, and after a groin strain in Game Four against the Suns, he's once again very much back to Doubtful. But for one season -- and one glorious postseason -- he was basically a sure thing, and that alone justifies every belief NBA fans ever had of what he might one day be capable of. (Of course this was all likely of little comfort to Pelicans fans, who got to see him doing it for the NBA's equivalent to the MCU and not for their own long-ish-suffering franchise, but we have enough to worry about right now without dwelling on the implications there just yet.)
In any event, all we can really do at the moment is to cherish even the least-assured times that we have with Joel -- to remember how even the chance of him in full is so much better than anything we had in the decades before him -- and to particularly treasure those rarest of runs where Embiid and the Sixers can ball without worry or pity. Hopefully, one of these years, we spend a month or two bracing ourselves for an inevitable tweak that never comes. Hopefully, it's not too late for us to get back there this year. Hopefully, we get a Woj update by the time this article goes up that renders the entire thing pointless and gets me quote-tweeted to oblivion. It's worth hoping for. But until we actually get there, it's still pretty Doubtful.