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De George: Title or not, Joel Embiid’s warrior mentality could be his Sixers legacy

PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid took in the question late Thursday night like it was a big man charging down the lane.

He’d just divulged the struggle of the last two weeks, battling a case of Bell’s palsy that has caused partial paralysis on the left side of his face. He answered with a blunt, “no” when asked if trust had grown in the surgically repaired meniscus in his left knee. And oh by the way, he had just dropped 50 points to help the 76ers stave off a three-game deficit in a 125-114 win over the Knicks in Game 3 of their playoff series.

So does Embiid, given the laundry list of maladies that have blighted his 30 years and obstructed what is still a Hall of Fame track, ever wonder why him?

“I say it every day,” Embiid said.

Embiid, nearer to the end of his career than the beginning, is old enough to be pondering his legacy. The only one long accepted for The Process – of which he has served variously as ringleader, mascot and embodiment – would involve a world championship.

But Embiid’s latest battle with his own body and the 15 other teams that would like that trophy in June underscores what may be the end result, and a perfectly palatable one when all is said and done. Embiid’s legacy in Philadelphia, title or not, will be of one of the most determined, devoted and loyal manifestations of the city’s work ethic, whether or not it ends with the sport’s ultimate prize.

“Every single year, you start asking yourself questions like, why?” Embiid said with an obvious nod to his postseason injury history. “Every single year, it’s very annoying. Maybe it’s just meant to be. I’ve got to take it as it is, but the one thing I’m not going to do is give up, no matter what happens. I’ve got to keep pushing, got to keep fighting, got to keep putting my body on the line for my family, for this city, for this team.”

Embiid’s injury legacy is outstretched only by a resume that includes seven All-Star appearances, two scoring titles and an MVP award. Between the knee issues, the foot breaks, the facial fractures, that playoff thumb injury … you know the list. Even when he’s done the things he’s needed to do, in terms of fitness, problems have found him, like a falling Jonathan Kuminga in late January for the knee injury.

It’s a darkly comical twist that fate would add Bell’s palsy to his ailments. Migraines before the play-in game against Miami led to weakness on the left side of his face, including his mouth and eye. Drops and sunglasses have been the treatment, and Embiid is sure the mental toll of the knee contributed. He has no answer as to when the condition will abate, though minor cases like his are often temporary.

It didn’t seem to affect him while tossing in five 3-pointers on the way to a 50-piece, on the way to an achievement only Allen Iverson (three times) and Billy Cunningham have done in 76ers playoff history, on the way to something only five others centers (four named Wilt) have accomplished in the playoffs.

Embiid did that while leading his team past a dispiriting Game 2 loss in New York in which the 76ers saw the Knicks score the last eight points of the game to steal a game with admitted aid from the refs. He did it while the Knicks got physical with their two-center rotation early, leading to a flagrant foul on Embiid. He did it with toughness that his team needed to see from its leader.

“His voice and his presence tonight was the biggest thing,” Tyrese Maxey said. “I know he had 50 – and I just said that like it was nothing – but his voice, his presence, his passion was huge tonight. And he didn’t let us get pushed around early. They were trying to push us around and be aggressive with us, and he set the tone early, that we’re not going for that. We’re not going to get pushed around.”

Embiid has detractors, though their grounds for objection are slowly eroding. Thursday doesn’t erase 5-for-18 against Boston in Game 7 last year or 6-for-18 against Toronto in Game 7 in 2019. Thursday may not do much for those who think Embiid’s play is too much about Embiid.

But if you’ve walked Embiid’s path – posited as a franchise savior then surviving as those supposed to help were found unworthy, past two GMs and two coaches – maybe it’s only a natural reaction. Maybe the only logical conclusion to this Sisyphean tale is to center yourself in the mythology, in hopes that sheer force of will can break the archetype. Embiid’s joy is a necessary adjunct, a needed salve.

“I just love playing the game,” he said. “I just want to be on the floor as much as possible. I want to play as much as possible. I only got about, maybe, eight years left, so I’ve got to enjoy this as much as possible, and I want to win.”

And so Thursday, in pondering why him, there wasn’t time to wallow before or gloat after. There wasn’t time to do anything other than what he’s been trying to be healthy enough to do all along, and to use the question as fuel.

“You can ask yourself those questions,” he said. “But what are you going to do about it? Are you going to quit? Are you going to keep going? If you’re going to keep going, what are you going to do about it? The best thing you can do is the best job possible to prepare yourself every single day, which I’ve done. Sometimes you get the results. Sometimes you don’t.”

Embiid may ultimately be remembered for whether or not he delivers a trophy to Philadelphia. Or he might be remembered for legendary feats like that time on one leg and a half-frozen face, he dropped 50 points and shut up a bunch of loudmouth Knicks fans that thought their team was going up 3-0.

If it’s only the latter, it’ll still be plenty special.

Contact Matthew De George at

Source: Berkshire mont

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