Joel Embiid’s end-of-season message:
Don’t blame me. At least I tried.
He should have worn a T-shirt with that phrase printed on it with emoji eyeballs looking sidewise in the direction of Ben Simmons.
Embiid averaged 30.4 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 2.0 blocked shots in 37.4 minutes in the seven-game series loss to the Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, all while playing with torn cartilage in his right knee. After three years of being out of his depth and out of gas in the postseason, Embiid feels like he proved something this year, even in defeat:
“There’s one thing I want to say: I gave everything I had.”
So, he said it. Three times.
He also said it in a tweet late Sunday night, pandering to Philadelphia’s adoration of tough guys.
Embiid said lots more.
Asked when he thought the Hawks gained momentum, he answered that Game 7 turned when Simmons refused to dunk a ball late in the fourth quarter. It was a very specific answer, aimed at a very specific target, with a very specific purpose:
Get this dude out of here.
Simmons’ offensive deficiencies were the main reason the Sixers lost in the second round of the playoffs in 2018 to the Celtics, in 2019 to the Raptors, and this year. Simmons did not even try a shot in the fourth quarters of Games 4, 5, 6, and 7.
Asked if he wanted to see the present team return intact, Embiid replied:
“That’s a tricky question. I don’t think this is the time to be talking about those types of [things].”
What he didn’t say:
What might have been
Embiid stressed that, had he been healthy, and if veteran forward Danny Green hadn’t been lost in Game 3 to a calf injury, this Sixers squad could have won a title. But he wasn’t healthy, and he made sure you knew his knee diminished him:
“It’s not easy, especially when you always get … Something always happens at the wrong time.”
Embiid caught himself there. He was going to say, “When you always get hurt.” Because, you know, he always gets hurt, and that is a stigma he won’t shake this year. He missed 21 games this season, and it cost him the MVP award, and he had to play hurt after Game 4 of the Sixers’ first-round series win over the Wizards.
Since being drafted third overall in 2014, Embiid, 27, has missed more than half of the Sixers’ regular-season games — 295 of 555, or 53.2%. He also has missed four of 38 playoff games, or almost 11%.
In his first 23 playoff games, he’d averaged 22.3 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.7 blocked shots, and shot 43.7% from the field, and was too unfit to play more than 32.9 minutes per game. That’s almost five fewer minutes than he played this year while he was injured. Embiid credited abstention from his legendary Chick-fil-A binges.
“I felt like this year was the biggest year of my career, just taking care of my body,” said Embiid, who loosely followed a diet prescribed by a nutritionist. “Playing injured in the postseason I started seeing the results about how I felt. Even though I was hurt and was in pain, my body still felt somewhat OK.”
He wanted you to understand just how brave he’d been, and how much it took for him to play hurt. Hey, if you want to call him a hero, he won’t argue:
“I thought hard about playing on it. Ultimately, I decided to do it. It was my choice.”
‘I love playing like a guard’
As usual, Embiid wasted no breath on modesty. The sky is his limit. Need a real point guard? Let me see what I can do:
“Personally, I felt like I took a huge step this year. And there’s so much more I can do. I can be so much better.”
That means he plans to spend even less time in the post despite his dominance on the block. You don’t like it? Tough.
“A lot of people get mad when I play away from the basket. But in today’s NBA, you’ve got to be able to do everything on the basketball court, especially if you’re the best player on the team,” Embiid said. “I’m gonna be me.
“A lot of people complain if I don’t spend freaking the whole game on the block, but that’s not the way basketball is played. I’ve always seen myself as a complete basketball player. I love playing on the block. I love playing like a guard. I love doing both, and I’m going to do both.”
He’s probably tired of being treated by officials the way Shaquille O’Neal was treated. O’Neal absorbed more punishment than the Merrimack and the Monitor, and Embiid, the biggest and baddest man in the NBA, is the league’s new punching bag. Still, Embiid isn’t ironclad, so, unprovoked, he complained Sunday about the officiating late in this series. He figures that, in the future, he’ll get hacked less if he stays 25 feet from the basket.
“They don’t call anything, the last three games,” said Embiid, knowing a fine from the NBA would soon land at his doorstep. “It’s been the same way. Over and over.”
To his credit, Embiid repeatedly admitted that he hadn’t been perfect against the Hawks. After the Sixers took a lead of two games to one in the series, Embiid committed 25 turnovers in the last four games, including eight Sunday night.
Embiid pointed at Ben Simmons’ refusal to dunk with 3:29 left as the play that decided the game and the series. But Embiid also admitted that he subsequently took a bad shot at the end of a bad possession, then got his pocket picked.
He wasn’t perfect. Just incredibly courageous.
Just ask him.
“With the circumstances, I did what I could, and I gave everything I had,” Embiid said. “I’m a winner. I want to win. I do everything it takes to win.”
He’s getting closer, anyway.