This Is How Valuable Joel Embiid Is
He played in a game on Friday that was impossible for him to play in, and saved our season in the process. I don't think a professional athlete could be more valuable.
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There was no way he was going to make it for Game Three, and there was no way that he wasn't. The Mikes O'Connor and Levin more or less took these seemingly opposing positions about Joel Embiid's likely availability for Friday's game in the post-Game Two Ricky a couple nights earlier. MOC said he'd be shocked if Embiid played in the game, because Jo couldn't even play Candy Crush just a few days earlier, and that the concussion and the broken face and the thumb and his general inactivity for the better part of the week was all gonna make him returning that quickly impossible. And Original Mike predicted that Embiid was gonna play, because he's Embiid and because it was killing him too much to see the Heat playing catch at the rim for two games -- while DeAndre Jordan looked around like a driver who realized he had just sped right past his exit -- for him to stay out a second longer than he had to. They were both absolutely right, even though one of them technically had to be wrong.
In the end, Embiid did in fact make it back for the opening tip of Game Three -- mask and thumb tape and atrophied (but fresh!) legs and all. Doc Rivers promised his health and minutes would be monitored; he still played 36 minutes, including the entire third quarter and even a couple minutes to start the fourth. The Sixers won the game 99-79, pulling their season from the brink of Pitbull-soundtracked oblivion and ensuring that Game Four on Mother's Day would still be meaningful for the whole family.
I can't get over what Joel Embiid did for us in this game.
Part of me feels guilty about how much it means to me, actually. Valorizing Embiid's ability and willingness to tough out these very serious and potentially debilitating injuries as a necessary sacrifice in the name of Playoff Basketball is a dangerous message to send, and if he had badly reaggravated any of his maladies (or thrown new ones on the pile), we never would've forgiven Doc Rivers, or ourselves. As much as we wanted the big man back for this one, this series does not mean enough for him to jeopardize his long-term health, in either a basketball or non-basketball sense, to try to make it competitive. I very much hope that Joel knows we would still love him without qualification if he had decided it was insane for him to try to play Friday. Pretty inarguably, it was.
But the mere fact that he wanted so badly to make it back for Game Three of a series we once thought he'd be lottery-winner lucky to play in at all really moves me to near-tears when I think long and hard about it. Not just that he wanted it that badly -- but that we knew he wanted it that badly, never doubted for a second that were there any way he could, he would. We couldn't be sure how his performance would be affected by the trials his body was being put through, but we could know that his resolve would not waver. It's that kind of faith you only really get to put in the very most special people and relationships in your life -- where you feel in your core that if they can be there for you, they will. It's the stuff Carole King writes songs about.
Which isn't to say it's all about us, of course. Embiid undoubtedly wants this for himself first and foremost -- for the career validation and legacy currency that winning at the highest levels affords NBA superstars, and for the Quantum Leap-like chance to put right what once went wrong for him in postseasons past. But it's also a little about us: the fans, the city, The Process. Jo has routinely said that he wants to win here, that he wants to get a championship for us, and he's probably the only Philly athlete who can say something like that without us rolling our eyes at least a little bit at the pandering. We believe it would mean more for him to win it here than anywhere else, because we know it would mean more to us for him to win it here than anyone else. You can never totally believe that someone actually loves you for who you are until you realize that's also the way you feel about them. Embiid coming back for Game Three felt like the culmination of our eight-year relationship with him, an acknowledgement of everything we've gone through together, and a confirmation that it was all as real for him as it's been for us.
Admittedly it's a little silly to be getting this flowery about a Game Three win to cut our series deficit to 2-1, particularly one where Embiid (by his own admission) played well below his regular-season and even his first-round standard. I don't mean to suggest that now that Embiid is back, the series is well in hand -- obviously I was confident in our ability to beat this Heat team even without Jo, but a 2-1 series lead with home-court advantage is tough to disregard, and this game wasn't nearly as decisive a victory as the final score would indicate. And I don't even want to assume that just because Embiid was back, he'll definitely be around for the rest of the series: Who knows how his body will respond to this game the day after? If at any point he feels like he is risking real damage to his present or future by continuing to play, he should shut it down, and we should love and celebrate him for doing so.
But having him out there on Friday night was absolutely everything. For what essentially amounted to a Bad Embiid Game -- poor shooting touch (5-12 FG), minimal passing vision (one assist and four turnovers), some other usually avoidable mistakes -- he was still comically great. For two games, Bam Adebayo had been the head of the snake for the Heat's half-court offense, initiating, directing and/or finishing the majority of their most productive actions. And in Game Three, Joel simply cut him off: No more attacking angles, no more separation for short jumpers (or undersized defenders to shoot them over), no more over-commitments for him to beat with his passing. After combining for 47 points and seven assists over his first two games of the series, Bam had to settle for a resounding nine points and one assist in G3, with his inability to produce essentially grinding the entire Heat offense to a halt. It might not have been the most prolific offensive game of Joel’s postseason -- though he had some memorable moments on the way to his 18 points for the night -- but the truly punchline-worthy difference between him and DeAndre Jordan defensively was still the biggest reason the Sixers won the game.
And in this series, that truly could end up being enough. The Heat are a good team but by no means an unstoppable one; they grind out possessions patiently and professionally but also somewhat predictably. Make things difficult for them and they don't have much to counter with; Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro can still get buckets on busted plays, but both have exploitable weaknesses on offense and can really struggle when pushed out of their comfort zones. Embiid's presence essentially turns the faucet off on their easy offense (except, of course, with extra possessions won on the offensive glass), which means they have to really work for everything they get. In Game 3, they couldn't even get 80. That number will come back up -- the Heat missed a decent amount of makeable shots on Friday -- but it shows the impact of just showing Miami a competent defense that they have to actually work around. Add in Embiid's extra gravity on offense -- even with just one assist, he still played a part in Tyrese Maxey and Danny Green shooting a combined 12-15 from three on Friday after being a couple of frozen-out Frostys in the first two games -- and we really might not need more than the 60-70% of him that we're currently getting to still have a real chance to steal this series.
With rumors of questionable verifiability flying all day Friday about Embiid being announced as the league MVP before the game (he wasn't), I was thinking a lot about how valuable Joel truly is. I don't want to get into relitigating the debate between him and Jokic/Giannis for this year, and really what I'm talking about with Joel's value isn't necessarily something that would or should be taken into MVP considerations anyway. It's not just about his on-court production -- the usually gaudy offensive numbers, the always-steady defensive presence (except for that one game against Toronto) -- it's about how much it means to us and to the rest of the team when he's out there, how much more we care about winning when he's involved. It's about how much he wants to win for this specific team, how deep he's willing to dig to get there. It's about how we can go from talking about the series like it's already over to bringing back SIXERS IN SIX chest-puffery after exactly one game of the boy being back in town.
He probably won't win the MVP, and the Sixers might very well still lose this series. But he played in a game on Friday that was impossible for him to play in, and saved our season in the process. I don't think a professional athlete could be more valuable.