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The case for why Joel Embiid deserved better and what his injury reveals about the NBA’s 65-game rule

SAN FRANCISCO — Joel Embiid didn’t speak. Not with his words, anyway. The Philadelphia 76ers big man who had been ridiculed for three days after his latest disappearance, and whose MVP defense is in such early peril because of the league’s 65-game rule that is putting so much pressure on his sensitive situation, didn’t have to say anything after he’d left the Chase Center floor in such pain late Tuesday night due to an apparent knee injury.

As was the case on Saturday afternoon, when his late scratch against the Denver Nuggets sparked a chorus of criticism about his perceived lack of willingness to take on a fellow great in Nikola Jokić, the awful optics were enough. Only this time, in stark contrast to that Mile High City mishap, Embiid had suddenly become a sympathetic figure. And if anyone was scared, as he’d been accused of being in some high-profile media circles, it was the Sixers team (29-17) that now finds itself fifth in the Eastern Conference standings after losing 119-107 to Golden State.

It spoke volumes that Sixers coach Nick Nurse was inordinately slow to attend his postgame news conference, or that his responses to questions about the left knee injury suffered with 4 minutes, 4 seconds remaining in their fourth straight loss seemed so rehearsed. It’s never a good sign when a team’s top front office executive, in this case, the Sixers’ Daryl Morey, is making the rounds in the back hallways of the visitor’s arena in pursuit of perspective from the team’s medical staff. All of the Sixers parties who matter most were clearly concerned.

As for Embiid, he opted against speaking to reporters afterward while prioritizing an ice bath that lasted long into the night. And with good reason. The MRI results will determine how worried these Sixers need to be as they forge ahead on this title-contending mission. For Embiid’s résumé, he can miss only five more games before being ruled ineligible for the kind of postseason awards that have shaped the legacies of greats for so long. That’s the micro of it all.

The Warriors’ Jonathan Kuminga fell on Embiid’s left knee late in the game, and his night full of laborious movement mercifully ended with Warriors fans wishing him well on the way out with cheers and even a few mini-standing ovations. But the macro, and the thing that should inspire fans and reporters alike to think twice about how we discuss this massive man who is such a basketball treasure when his body allows him to be, is that Embiid is very clearly fighting through the same sort of physical ailments that have dogged him for so much of his 10-year career.

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