There is hardly a team across the NBA that hasn’t had either its roster or its schedule or both shredded by the sudden spike of COVID-19 infections. The Celtics and 76ers are at least playing games, but their rosters are in sorry shape: Philadelphia’s game Sunday was postponed due to a shortage of players after Andre Drummond and Shake Milton returned positive tests; Boston has seven total players, including four rotation guys, languishing in the health and safety protocols. As Boston television play-by-play guy Brian Scalabrine was quick to point out early in Monday night’s Sixers-Celtics game, the smattering of regulars still standing would have to bear a heavy minutes burden until rosters normalized.
These are dicey times. Joel Embiid, who always seems on the brink of physical collapse, would have to go without his primary backup. Meanwhile, both of Boston’s primary center options—Robert Williams and Al Horford—were unavailable, leaving a crucial vacancy and no one more qualified to fill it than the dreaded Enes Kanter Freedom. As a backstop against the worst degradations of abject resourcelessness, you could do worse than Freedom. And yet, as a supposed solution to the threats his side faced, Freedom has certain significant limitations, and is hardly a panacea.
It was American President Lyndon B. Johnson, in an 1965 address given at Howard University, who famously stated that “freedom is not enough.” Though he couldn’t have known it at the time, this would present an apt summary of Boston’s challenge in facing the Philadelphia 76ers on December 20, 2021. As I am now being menaced by a machete-wielding Tom Ley, let us conclude this rhetorical maneuver by acknowledging that I should’ve written this blog for a publication of broader vision and greater prestige than this simple, crude blog site.
Freedom really does have some characteristics that suit him to banging around with Embiid for heavy minutes. He’s humongous, for one thing. For another, he’s a monster on the offensive glass, a trait the Celtics were quick to exploit whenever they could lure Embiid out onto the floor in crossmatches. Unfortunately—and contrary to the very poorly informed takes of the maniacs who’ve taken Freedom up as a champion since his ridiculous brand-pivot to Voice Of The Oppressed And Also Antagonist Of LeBron James For Some Reason—Kanter is one of the very worst defenders at his position in the sport, and is generally hopeless against a center who can match his heft under the hoop. Embiid wasn’t even remotely at his best Monday night—he seemed to tweak his lower leg early in the contest and labored up and down the court for 40 exhausting minutes of work—but he still gave the business to Boston’s emergency center.
For his part, Kanter did what he could across 40 minutes of his own, which is roughly three times as many minutes as he’s good for in a modern NBA game. But eventually the burden became too much. Down the stretch, when all the Celtics needed was a few stops, Embiid exploited Freedom over and over again, until the game was out of reach:
Embiid finished with 41 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, and four blocks, and scored Philadelphia’s final nine points to lead a late comeback. Freedom, doing his absolute best, finished with a nice 15-point, 11-rebound double-double. Apart from whatever schadenfreude is taken from watching a grandstanding Celtics goofus get splattered in an individual matchup, there’s something hugely satisfying about watching Embiid, even and maybe even especially a hobbled, lumbering Embiid, go into Destroyer mode and rain in a series of lovely, clutch buckets, and bank an important win pretty much on his own.
The impression of these 76ers as contenders—as well as probably the fact of these 76ers as contenders—has been upended by the ongoing Ben Simmons saga, and along that slide into semi-relevance the status of Embiid as one of the NBA’s tiny handful of genuine killers has lost some of its shine. Unfairly! At no point this season has Embiid seemed all the way healthy, and his offensive numbers are down across the board, but he remains one of a whole two men at his position who can just heave his entire sad-sack team onto his back, at both ends, and drag their sorry asses to this kind of road victory.
But the crucial lesson, and one that far too many Americans still struggle to internalize to this very day, is the one articulated by President Johnson more than half-a-century ago: [sound of a blogger being brutally hacked to bits with a machete]