Joel Embiid had another strong performance Thursday night in Philadelphia’s home win over the dour, miserable, unexpectedly LeBron James–less Los Angeles Lakers. Embiid has been on an incredible tear since mid-December: He’s scored 30 or more points in 16 of Philadelphia’s last 19 games and led the Sixers to a 14–5 record, into a tie with the Brooklyn Nets for fourth in the Eastern Conference, two games from the top spot and two-and-a-half games clear of the dreaded play-in zone. Thursday’s 26-point near–triple-double in 35 tough minutes broke a streak of four straight games with at least 38 points, and all it took was Anthony Davis’s best defensive effort since the Orlando bubble.
About halfway into the first quarter of this most recent dominant performance, Tobias Harris wasted a positional mismatch in the lane and lobbed a hand-grenade pass out to Embiid, guarded by Davis, with about five seconds left on the shot clock. With too little time to try anything else, Embiid heaved up an off-balance, step-back three, which missed. Davis took off running and Malik Monk threw a beautiful full-court pass. Embiid, trailing Davis, made a desperate leap to intercept the ball, missed, and then crumped awkwardly to the court. In my living room, with my sleeping child upstairs and my startled wife next to me, I shouted, “Oh no! He’s dead!”
Embiid was not dead, as you have already gleaned from the fact that he played 35 minutes. He popped up, walked gingerly for a few seconds, and resumed kicking butt. Just about three minutes later, Embiid drove baseline on Davis, gathered his dribble, got caught too deep under the basket, stumbled, and rolled awkwardly down onto the floor. For the second time in the night, I proclaimed aloud that I had just watched Embiid die.
It is never anything less than terrifying when Joel Embiid falls over in an NBA game. I’ve thought about this, and the only other NBA player from my lifetime who inspired even close to the same level of anxiety during falls was Yao Ming. They have in common that they are humongous, just visually much larger than everyone else on an NBA floor. Embiid is also like Yao in that he has a lumbering way of moving, which gives the impression of tremendous, teetering weight. It can be hard to make your eyeballs accept that any person’s ankles and feet can possibly be up to the job of supporting all of that, and especially for all the quick and exacting footwork of a really gifted basketball player. I think the average viewer is subconsciously expecting a moment when the delicate bones and straining ligaments of such a person’s lower half will inevitably explode.
Back in 2018 Chris Herring published a great blog over on ESPN about Embiid falling over, and why it seems to happen so damn much. Herring found that Embiid does in fact fall over an awful lot, and that other players who fall as often as Embiid are either smaller (Ersan Ilyasova) or much smaller (James Harden), and tend to fall in managed, controlled circumstances: Ilyasova’s sole remaining NBA skill, even back then, was the ability to take lots of charges, whereas Harden was at the peak of his ref-baiting powers and did an awful lot of flopping. But Herring’s main finding was somewhat encouraging: Embiid falls as often as he does because he’s been trained to go down, because a managed tumble is safer for his limbs than letting any one of them bear the brunt of his full weight:
“It was something I learned during my rehab when I was going through the foot injury, when I was trying to find ways to limit the impact on my body in 2014. I was told that every time I feel like I’m in a situation where it’s going to be some type of extreme [weight] on my leg, I’ve got to dive or just roll onto the floor. So that’s why I do it.”ESPN
That’s fine and great, but my concern is not so much the frequency of Embiid’s random-seeming tumbles, nor is it the possibility that Embiid’s body will be destroyed by a given fall. My concern, each time Embiid falls down, is that his body has already been destroyed, and the fall is just his ruined corpus collapsing into a large pile of glistening smithereens. I simply cannot make my brain believe that Embiid is not always on the brink of explosion. The fall is not how it will explode, but rather is evidence that it has just exploded.
I have done my own research on this phenomenon. Thursday night, while confronting my own skyrocketing anxiety over the fragility of a perfect stranger’s skeleton, I took an informal survey: What is the experience of watching Embiid fall over, for a fan of the 76ers? One poor fan compared it to “watching your child running with scissors 80–100 times a year,” and said “you get very used to holding your breath,” which honestly to me sounds like trauma! Noted 76ers sicko Brian Grubb compared it to taking a beloved car on a cross-country road trip, and “hearing a mysterious clunking sound” in desolate flyover country: “For your own sanity, you just have to hope it’s nothing and keep moving forward. Maybe turn the music up real loud so you don’t hear it again. It’s fine. It’s probably fine. We’re all doing fine.” We are not doing fine! This is not what “fine” looks like!
Even more troubling is the thought of 76ers fans gulping this terror and anxiety down and normalizing it in their own vulnerable psyches. Our own Dan McQuade acknowledged that the threat of catastrophe is always “in the back of my head every time [Embiid] even looks like he’s going to hit the ground,” but he has become accustomed to this condition, and since Embiid mostly survives the falls the experience is “not quite as bad as it used to be, scare-wise.” Another Sixers fan described four years of “clench-inducing” horror, but said that he is now “totally numb,” something he considers “part of the package” of being a fan of this team. I feel the need to point out, here, that numbness is not merely an absence of pain, it is an absence of sensation. This is a deeply troubling condition of fandom.
TNT showed a shocking statistic Thursday night: Embiid’s current streak of 20 consecutive games played is the second-longest of his eight-year NBA career. This reflects not just the trouble that Embiid’s had with injuries in his career, but also the lengths the 76ers have gone to limit his workload and protect him from wear and tear. Now Embiid is reaching his incredible peak as a player, putting together a historic season leading a Sixers team stuck in limbo due to the ongoing Ben Simmons situation. This man’s health must be protected at all costs! I feel reasonably confident that NASA has invented science things that can protect the various joints and load-bearing members of much larger and more complex structures than Joel Embiid. I can think of no reason why this technology cannot be put to use in such a way that the experience of watching Embiid play a game of basketball is made less agonizing.