Every time 7-foot Joel Embiid hits the floor, the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers have to hold their breath.
Embiid suffered a "small lateral meniscus tear" in his right knee during Game 4 of Philadelphia's first-round win over the Washington Wizards, an injury that will ultimately require either surgical repair or removal. He has gotten neither and did not play in the series-clinching Game 5. His status remained questionable until hours before Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinals series against the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks.
All Embiid has done since is score 79 points over the first two games of the second round. The Sixers squandered his 39 points in Game 1, and they needed every one of his 33 points through three quarters to keep Game 2 close. He finished with a playoff career-high 40 points and 13 rebounds to even the series.
In between, he was named runner-up to Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic in the MVP race.
"I don't know if the MVP thing did anything to him or not," 76ers coach Doc Rivers told reporters following his team's 118-102 victory on Tuesday. "I remember being on the other side the night that David Robinson got the MVP and we had to play [Hakeem] Olajuwon. I was on that Spurs team. That didn't go well for us.
"Tonight, you felt like that was Joel. He was that magnificent."
Embiid is that magnificent. Olajuwon-esque. When healthy.
Philadelphia has now outscored Atlanta by 27 points in 73 minutes with Embiid on the court in the series, and the Hawks are +15 in the 23 minutes he has rested. For these playoffs, the Sixers are an outrageous 31.1 points per 100 possessions better with Embiid on the floor — almost three times an already lofty on/off rating during the regular season. The 76ers are basically unstoppable with him and the reverse without him.
Which is why Philadelphia feels on such shaky ground whenever Embiid is in the air.
This has been the story of his career. He missed his first two seasons with a foot injury. Surgery to remove "a small portion" of the lateral meniscus in his left knee — the same procedure he could face at season's end — cost him all but 31 games in what was his rookie year in 2016-17. He has missed another 80 games in the four seasons since, battling a series of back, ankle, face, knee, hip, hand and shoulder ailments.
The most consecutive games he has ever played is 26, and that was almost three years ago, when he averaged a career-high 33.7 minutes a game. Since then, he has played no more than 12 straight in a February 2020 stretch that ended with a shoulder sprain. His longest stretch without injury or required rest this season — one in which his 31.1 minutes per game were fewer than Larry Nance Jr. — is nine games.
Given the Sixers' struggles without Embiid in Game 1 and their inability to pull away from the Hawks in Game 2 until Shake Milton's out-of-body experience in the fourth quarter, it is clear Philadelphia will need at least 38 minutes a night from Embiid to win the 11 games necessary to reach its goal of a championship.
He played that many just five times during the regular season and had not hit that mark in a playoff game since 2019, before exceeding it in a short-lived playoff career-high 39-point night in Game 1 against Atlanta.
Embiid was incredible in Game 2, scoring from everywhere on the floor. He had multiple driving up-and-under layups, including one that sent him careening to the floor. Bated breath. It cannot be coincidence that he leverages athleticism no player his size should be able to unleash and often comes up lame as a result.
And Atlanta knows it. Hawks center Clint Capela has been physical with Embiid, and his second-quarter alley-oop dunk over him, complete with a stare-down, served to rile up the Sixers star. Minutes later, Embiid was attacking Capela with reckless abandon, twice getting blocked and both times landing awkwardly.
Once more in the second quarter, Hawks forward Danilo Gallinari pushed Embiid to the floor from behind. Embiid soon responded by shoving Gallinari, following another physical dustup under the 76ers' basket. They each earned technicals, but Atlanta will make that trade any night Embiid wants to get extracurricular.
"He's coming out and dominating," said Sixers teammate Tobias Harris. "Once you step out on that floor, there's no excuses, and he understands that. This is the playoffs. The way the NBA season was, I don't think anybody is 100%, so when he steps on that floor, he has that attitude and mentality that it's win."
Embiid has survived the first two games of the second round on a partially torn meniscus and emerged looking every bit the MVP frontrunner he was prior to yet another injury to his other knee in mid-March. The Sixers need his best as the stakes raise and the physicality increases over the next six weeks. Every superstar has his burden to carry to a title, and Embiid's is the playoff hopes of the Sixers on a bad knee.
"I'm not worried about those awards and stuff," Embiid said after his career night, which included two assists, a pair of steals and a block. "If and when I'm holding that trophy, anything else won't matter."
Nothing can stop him but his own body and the failure of his teammates to support the weight he carries.
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