A Great Sweep That Still Ultimately Sucks
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I don't know exactly where sweeping the Brooklyn Nets ranks on the list of Process-era postseason accomplishments -- not a particularly crowded ranking -- but it's certainly very high. Yes, it's possible that the Nets were the least formidable of the 16 squads to make this postseason, but that doesn't diminish the achievement much for me: They were still a hard-fighting, well-coached squad with a number of players capable of applying serious pressure to the Sixers' weakest spots, and they still probably get at least one game off any other Sixers team of the last six years besides this one. (The Wizards squad we played in 2021 wasn't much stronger, if at all, and they still managed to win a mostly Embiid-less Game Four in that first-round series.) To go 4-0 as we did took resilience, toughness, and a variety of important players stepping up in a variety of different ways. It was often uglier than Montrezl Harrell operating in the post, but it was still a great series victory for the Sixers.
But while the win was a real triumph for the Sixers, it was also still a huge failure. Because despite all the little things that we stressed about over the course of four games, there were only two things that actually mattered at the end of each: Did we win, and did we stay healthy? Though we went undefeated in the former category, we took at least one very big L in the latter. And that threatens to overwhelm any positive memory of this series, especially once we feel the full impact of it in the second round.
You know the refrain with Joel Embiid: It's always something. The broken face in 2018. The knee soreness and gastroenteritis in 2019. The torn meniscus in 2021. The busted thumb and broken face (again) in 2022. It basically took the world nearly ending in 2020 for him to get a healthy crack at this thing, and that of course was during his worst season with (especially once Simmons went down for the year) his worst supporting cast. And now, we've got one more DNP explanation to throw onto the pile: a right knee sprain suffered in Game Three of the Nets series, causing him to miss yesterday's Nets closeout game and leaving his return date TBD.
Remarkably, despite this eye-poppingly long and impressively diverse list of maladies suffered by Embiid over the course of his six postseasons, he hasn't really missed a ton of total time as a result: just seven games out of a possible 54 for his career, a pace that would still easily result in a career-high games played for Jo if applied over the course of an 82-game regular season. The bigger problem hasn't generally been the games these injuries have forced Jo to sit, it's been the way they've hung over the games he did play. When he gets held to just seven shot attempts against the Raptors in Game Four in 2019, or goes 0-12 in the second half against the Hawks in Game Four in 2021, or posts a -29 against the Heat in Game Five in 2022, we always have to ask -- well, was he unhealthy, or did he just suck? We analyze his body language, on-court movement and postgame quotes for answers, but as much as we want to be able to make excuses for the big man when he comes up short in the second round every year, we've never really known how much he deserves them.
It would have been nice to not have to do the wondering this year. It would've been really nice, of course, to not even have to make excuses in the first place -- if, y'know, perish the thought, Embiid and the Sixers actually came through in the second round against (probably) Boston, ending a 22-year conference finals drought and putting to rest a decade of Process-era questions about this team. But failing that, we at least wanted an honest loss for once: one where, even if the Celtics ultimately ended our season for the third time in six years, we could at least say that we legitimately gave them our best shot, and then we could go about enacting the Big Scary Dramatic Changes that every sourced reporter has been threatening for this team for months were they to fall in the second round again. Just too much to ask for with Embiid and this team, it would seem.
And the really scary thing isn't what this means for this team and our guy this year -- arguably the most critical and potentially pivotal postseason run in Process-era Sixers history -- but what it probably means, and has always meant, for Joel Embiid's career. We did nearly everything we could this year, in terms of balancing Joel's schedule during the regular season to keep him both rested and ramped for this postseason, and then in terms of not playing with our protein and taking care of business in the first round to not have the series extended unnecessarily -- and it still wasn't enough. So it might be time for us to face up to the fact that the race is just too long in general for this guy to ever get to the finish line totally healthy. (If there's one silver lining in this respect, it's that at least he should finally win the MVP this year, which may allow him to take it easy down the stretch in future seasons in a way that -- despite whatever he said to the contrary -- he would never be able to do while he was still chasing that thing. Whether that'll actually make the difference... TBD, and tough to feel too optimistic currently.)
Of course, Embiid's knee isn't even the only major injury-related concern the Sixers have right now. Can't say how much James Harden's achilles soreness contributed to him needing printed-out MapQuest directions to find his way to the bottom of the net from five feet away during the Nets series, but when looking at some of the junk he's throwing at the rim and his general lack of liftoff compared to midway through the season, it certainly appears that something -- mental, physical, spiritual, karmical -- is not quite right with the man. That alone could've been enough to make it a cloudy second round for the Sixers before we even got underway; you add Embiid being described by an uncharacteristically funereal Doc Rivers as being 50/50 at best to play in Game One, and then him having to deal with this the whole series if and when he does play, and... yeah. The conclusions aren't hard to draw.
I do wish we had longer than just the immediate post-game glow to celebrate this Nets victory before reality set in. I really do think it was a tremendous job by the team, and it was one we at home were too busy sweating through our undershirts to actually enjoy and appreciate in real time. Sweeping any team in the postseason is very difficult. Yes, this Nets squad was wildly underqualified for their seed, but everyone and their analytics-minded uncle still predicted Sixers in five beforehand, and even with all the shit we had to deal with in this series, we still got it done in four. That's more than could be said for the Celtics, who currently have a worse April record in Atlanta than the Paul Reed and Jalen Springer-led Sixers, and it's much more than could be said for the Bucks, who got dropped by 22 last night in Miami without Giannis, and are now down 2-1 in the series and in real trouble. Lord knows we've had the matchup advantage before in the playoffs and not taken proper advantage; it absolutely fucking rules to finally be able to kick back with our popcorn for a week and laugh at all our rivals' continued struggles.
But as much as we're going to enjoy this upcoming vacation -- and as much as we've 100% earned it -- those Sunday Scaries are coming, and the return-to-office is gonna be real goddamn tough. We got out of this series in four, but turns out we needed to get out of it in two to avoid triggering the Embiid Groundhog Day curse. (And who knows, maybe he would've had an Edwin Diaz moment anyway while celebrating the NBA's first-ever two-game series sweep.) We still have a chance of taking out Boston, and lord knows we'll need to take some time over this upcoming week to talk ourselves into believing it's actually a pretty good one. But all we asked for was a chance to take them on fully healthy for once, with the best roster we've had since Sam Hinkie was just a gleam in George Lynch's eye, and we're not gonna get it. It sucks. It sucks. It just fucking sucks.