Joel Embiid averaged exactly 30 points per game when the Sixers were swept out of the NBA’s Disney World bubble by the Celtics.
He posted 30.4 points per game during the Sixers’ seven-game series defeat to the Hawks with a small lateral meniscus tear in his right knee.
With the No. 1 seed, the Sixers’ near-invincibility at home in recent seasons and players that fit better around him, Embiid thought it was worth playing through a significant injury.
“First of all, got to give Atlanta a lot of credit for what they did. … It sucks to come up short once again,” Embiid said following the Sixers’ Game 7 loss Sunday to Atlanta. “There’s a lot of stuff that happened. It just felt like this was going to be our year, but whether it’s COVID and injuries and stuff, it just sucks. If there’s one thing I want to say: I gave everything I had. It’s not easy, especially when something always happens at the wrong time. I was ready these whole playoffs to just come in and dominate, and do what I had to do. And obviously the meniscus happened. It sucks.
“There’s a lot to regret … there’s a lot of stuff that went wrong, whether it’s they can foul me all they want, whether it’s the officiating tonight. You’ve got guys fouling, putting their hands up, me going for a dunk — they don’t call anything. The last three games, it’s been the same way over and over. And then I get fined last game for having my arms out while I’m getting pushed in the freaking back. And I get fined, just because … I don’t know. So there’s a lot of stuff that went wrong. As a team, we still had to be better. We still had a good chance to win. We just made a lot of mistakes. But, like I said, I gave everything I had.”
The NBA fined Embiid $35,000 Sunday afternoon for “escalating” a Game 6 altercation with John Collins. He took 10 free throws in Game 7, making seven. Any possible further financial penalty evidently did not deter him for again sharing his frank opinion of the officiating.
At 27 years old, Embiid just finished the best personal season of his career, one that earned him runner-up in MVP voting even though he missed 21 games. His All-NBA Second Team selection made him eligible for a supermax extension. Beyond the boxes he checked, Embiid played like a supermax talent.
However, he’s still never been past Round 2 of the playoffs.
In Embiid's 2019 second-round appearance, Kawhi Leonard’s quadruple-bouncing series-winner for the Raptors was a swift, cruel conclusion. This year, the Sixers were good enough to build an 18-point lead in Game 4 and a 26-point lead in Game 5. And they were unsteady enough to let victories slip away on both occasions.
Game 7 looked winnable until the final moments, too. Embiid led the Sixers with 31 points but also turned the ball over eight times for a second consecutive game.
“It sucks, especially this year,” Embiid said. “I wouldn’t say it was the best team that I’ve had since I’ve been here. That team two years ago had a lot of potential, too, especially losing on a buzzer-beater to the champs that year. I’m a winner. I want to win. I do everything it takes to win. Losing obviously is going to take a toll on me — and it does, and it’s doing it.
“It’s also on me. I’ve got to be better. I’ve got to take another step when it comes to taking care of my body and my game as a whole, because I still feel like I have a lot of untapped potential that people haven’t really seen. I know 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 and a lot of people look up to you when it comes to creating your own offense.
“So I’ve got to be able to do everything, and I still feel like I have another part of my potential, whether it’s ball handling and playing off the dribble and all that stuff. And I’m going to be me. A lot of people complain if I don’t spend my time on the court — the whole game — on the block, but that’s not the way basketball is played. There’s a spacing aspect that comes with it, and the way I’ve seen myself, I’ve always seen myself as a complete basketball player. I’m going to take that next step and come back even better as a complete basketball player, and just do what I do. I love playing on the block; I love playing like a guard. I want to do both and I’m going to do both.”
Embiid shot 51.3 percent from the floor, 37.7 percent from three-point range and 85.9 percent from the foul line this year, all career-best numbers. He improved his shooting and also did not regress at all in the post. With 1.08 points per post-up possession, he retained the unofficial title of the NBA's most efficient high-volume post-up player.
Given his career trajectory, Embiid returning next season with a few new tricks does not appear out of the question. His health will be the first priority, though.
“It’s a torn meniscus,” he said. “It is what it is. I guess there’s a good and a bad in the loss. Now I can take care of my body. That’s something that I thought hard about, playing on it, but ultimately I decided to do it. It was my choice and I’ve got to live with the results. At the end of the day, when it comes to my future, I’ll be fine.”