MIAMI — Joel Embiid never really sleeps well. He’s a night owl by nature. And since he moved to the United States (just seven years ago!) he’s formed a bad habit of playing video games way too late into the night. This isn’t some hobby. Embiid once admitted he thinks he might be “addicted” to video games because his competitiveness is always flowing and has to go somewhere.
In his first three injury-plagued seasons in the league, many a night was spent destroying anyone willing to play him. So just imagine how restless he’s been these past three weeks having to sit out with a fractured orbital bone and concussion after running into teammate Markelle Fultz’ shoulder on March 28.
After four years under head coach Brett Brown of miserable losing, the Philadelphia 76ers were in the playoffs, at home, and Embiid could only watch and pine for the court. The only thing that settled him and let him sleep at night was watching his team continue the 17-game win streak it began before his injury.
“It was hard, but it wasn’t as painful because I knew we were winning,” Embiid told ESPN after he scored 23 points in the Sixers 128-108 win over the Miami Heat Thursday night to take a 2-1 series lead. “But when we lost, I was like, ‘No. It’s time to come back.'”
He left the arena after Game 2 Monday night in Philadelphia stewing. He fired off the now-infamous Instagram story saying he was tired of being “babied.” His phone immediately blew up. The Sixers shrugged. That’s Joel Embiid. He always wants to play. They’re used to his bursts of frustration by now.
He’d been doing two-a-days with his trainer Drew Hanlen and the Sixers staff trying to get back as quickly as possible. The crowd in Philadelphia had been electric. He’d promised them the playoffs and when Embiid says something like that, he likes to back it up himself. That’s not only the key to trash talking, but the key to Embiid.
It gets him going to get other people going. He trolls on social media so he’ll have to answer for it on the court.
“I like playing on the road and quieting the crowd,” he said with a smirk. “I love it. I think my stats are better on the road than at home, which is crazy.”
But that’s Embiid’s edge. And it’s become Philadelphia’s edge too. In his postgame interview with TNT, he even floated the idea of going to the Finals this year.
“Our goal is to go to the Finals so we actually have a pretty good chance,” he told TNT. “We have the talent.”
It’s the kind of thing we’ve come to expect from Embiid. Say it, then back it up. It’s his way of challenging himself and his team to live up to their immense talent, despite their inexperience. Without him, the Sixers were still a special team. But Miami exposed something in Game 2. Without Embiid, the Sixers don’t have that edge. A physical, experienced team can push them around.
With him? Well, let’s let Embiid explain.
“I’m going to be a nightmare for them,” Embiid declared in his postgame press conference.
“I love this moment. I love being physical. I love attacking, I love contact so I felt like they needed me in that way.”
They sure did. Right from the jump, the Heat seemed determined to test the protective mask the Sixers, Embiid’s surgeons and a group of independent doctors from the league spent the last 10 days agonizing over. Embiid had multiple fractures in his orbital bone, according to multiple sources. And it was his second career fracture in that area of his face, so all the doctors involved determined that the risk of re-injury was particularly high in Embiid’s case.
The Sixers spent quite a bit of time and money developing a mask that could stand up to the pressure of a physical NBA game. According to sources, tests have been ongoing at the University of Pennsylvania to ensure the Iron Man-looking mask Embiid wore in Game 3 would protect him.
“They [the Sixers] did everything possible,” Embiid told ESPN. “They were like throwing stuff at it to make sure it could withstand it.”
Embiid’s agent Leon Rose even consulted with former client Richard Hamilton, a longtime masked man, on the keys to adapting to playing with a mask.
“[Hamilton] told us it’ll get better because you’ll feel more protected,” Embiid told ESPN.
In other words, the mask might be uncomfortable and sweaty and annoying, but if you trust it in the heat of battle, it can make you more fearless.
Which is how Embiid always prefers to play, much to the everlasting chagrin and delight of Philadelphia’s fans.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Thursday night was the 11th time this season that Embiid had drawn at least 10 fouls in a game. The only other player to do that more is New Orleans Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis.
“They were doing everything they could to take me out,” Embiid told ESPN with a laugh as he sat at his locker after the game. “But they can’t guard me.”
That’s the kind of bulletin board quote Embiid has become famous for in his short NBA career.
And he was just getting started. About 20 minutes later, at his postgame press conference, Embiid said, in order:
“I’m glad I got (Justise Winslow) back on the other end and kind of shut him up because he was talking big time when he did block me and you don’t really want to talk trash to me.”
“I feel like I am the best defensive player in the league.”
“I could see their faces when you make that kind of shot, the guys on the other end, they just go like, ‘Ugh’ and that’s good. When you see that in their faces, that’s good.”
“It’s basketball, it’s always good to blow a team out. I think we were up 18 or 20, and if you can get that lead up to 22, I think that’s good. I like blowing teams out like we did. We are not here to make friends. We are here to win a series.”
Embiid walked off the podium with a smile. He said a lot, and he fully intends to back it up.