MIAMI — Sometimes, two simple words can capture an idea so completely that they become a permanent part of our lexicon.
That last one might not yet be eligible for enshrinement, but Joel Embiid made his best case for it after a 120-85 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals left the Sixers 48 minutes from the end of their season.
The words have become something of a mantra for the big guy over the last couple of seasons. Anytime he finds his mind drifting toward a problem without an obvious solution — usually at the behest of a question from a media member — he circles back to a verbal reminder that some things are outside of his control. Freak injury? It’s Whatever. Calls that didn’t go your way? They’re Whatever. When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when you’re feeling sad? Whatever. Sometimes, a thing is what it is. And when it is, It’s Whatever.
To be clear, Game 5 itself was not Whatever. Far from it. The Sixers arrived in South Florida on Monday afternoon with the series in their control. They left it looking like a team that will soon have plenty of time for Bermuda shorts and beaches. Yes, the Heat finally found a way to knock down some shots. And, yes, the Sixers spent four quarters drawing more iron than bowl full of beef livers. But this was much more than the law of averages going the bad guys’ way. Reversions to the mean are Whatever. This? This was a debacle.
Embiid knew it. His teammates knew it. Their coach knew it. The Sixers spent the first 24 minutes looking like a broken Nintendo cartridge. They spent the next 24 looking like five dudes at a 19th century YMCA learning about an exciting new sport called basket-ball. There was a dribble off James Harden’s knee. There was a pass from Tyrese Maxey that bounced off the would-be recipient’s chest. There was a pass from Embiid where there was no would-be recipient. Needless to say, it was over fast. By end of the game, the stands at FTX Arena were emptier than they were at the beginning of it. And for a fan base that regards playoff basketball first and foremost for its Instagram potential, that’s saying something.
“Everything they did tonight was harder and better,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said of the Heat. “Their stuff was better than what we ran, their energy was better, their toughness was better. I haven’t said that very often about us, and that’s on all of us. It’s on me to make sure they are ready, and it’s on them to be ready. Tonight, we were not.”
The Whatever part of the night began in the second quarter, when an inadvertent blow to Embiid’s masked face left the big guy rolling around on the baseline in significant pain. This was after he’d already come up lame following an ill-advised dive into the crowd for an attempted save. It was after he’d already missed the first two games of the series while suffering from the concussive aftereffects of the elbow he absorbed from Pascal Siakam in the first round. It was after he’d already torn a thumb ligament in his shooting hand earlier in that Raptors series, and hit a game-winning fadeaway three-pointer with said injured hand, and taped that thumb up and continued to play.
Yet as Embiid laid there writhing on the ground grabbing his fractured orbital socket with his torn right hand, a lot of knowledgable basketball people looked at the scene and somehow decided that he was the guy who needed to do more.
At halftime of the TNT broadcast, Charles Barkley not only blamed the Sixers’ 12-point deficit on Embiid, but suggested that the reason for his struggles was disappointment over the news that he had not been voted the NBA’s MVP. Not the broken face. Not the bum shooting hand. Not the cardiovascular effects of playing three games in five days after a week-long layoff. No, it was Embiid’s feelings that were hurt. That’s what hurt the team.
It would be one thing if Barkley’s sentiments were an isolated take from the Round Mound of Raised Eyebrows. But by the end of the game, Embiid as Culprit No. 1 had gone mainstream. He was well aware of this when he got to the postgame interview room, leaving him little room to maneuver when reporters asked him about the blow he absorbed in the first half.
“I don’t exactly know what happened,” Embiid said, “but I just felt something to my face, in that area. Pretty painful, but it’s whatever.”
Embiid knew it wouldn’t do any good to fill in the blanks. It should have been clear to everybody watching that playing through things like broken faces and bum thumbs and post-concussions entails certain tradeoffs in physical performance. The only thing he’d accomplish by explaining his limitations in detail is opening up a new line of attack for his critics.
“This is a ‘lose-lose’ situation for me,” he said. “If I don’t play, I probably get called soft, and if I play and I play bad, they probably come up with a bunch of stuff [like], ‘I guess he’s just not good enough.’ It’s all about staying — not get too high or too low and just going out there and really try to dig very deep and try to do whatever I can.”
Look, Embiid did not play well. He shot 7-of-12 from the field with five rebounds. On the defensive end he was slow, sluggish, out of position. On the offensive end, he was visibly frustrated by the Sixers’ inability to force feed him the ball. Maybe he could have dug a little deeper and found a little more will. Maybe his inability to do so wasn’t entirely a product of his physical limitations. Maybe he and the Sixers would both be better off if he did not feed into the drama. Maybe James Harden is as limited by his hamstring as Embiid is by his thumb. Who knows what Tobias Harris is dealing with beyond the elbow to the throat he absorbed in Game 4. Maybe when Embiid was asked about his reaction to his MVP snub, he should have insisted that his focus is on the team and the series and left it at that.
At the same time, hasn’t he earned the benefit of the doubt? The Sixers’ biggest problem in Game 5 was that they needed Embiid to play like an MVP. Heading into a do-or-die Game 6, they need to figure something else out. The dirty little secret behind their wins in Games 3 and 4 is that they happened primarily because they shot 32-of-66 from three-point range while the Heat shot 14-for-65. Well, Miami adjusted, and the Sixers did not. They entered Game 5 hoping that Harden would shoot 60% from deep again and that Jimmy Butler would go away. They wound up embarrassed because they turned the ball over 15 times and shot 36.5% from the field. They would up embarrassed because they had no answers for Butler at any point in the first quarter.
Embiid? He’s hurt. Of course he is going to look like he is erring on the side of caution at times. That’s what the human body does.
“It’s just a tough stretch for him,” Rivers said, “but he’s a warrior.”
He’s also human, and the Sixers need to account for that fact. It’s whatever, and they’re one game away from it being that way for good.