Joel Embiid remains a stark reminder of the grueling journey of the NBA playoffs

Tyrese Maxey, the NBA’s newly crowned Most Improved Player, was overjoyed after Thursday night’s Philadelphia victory when he learned the 76ers would have two more days to heal before battling New York again for Sunday’s Game 4. Philadelphia’s head coach echoed his sentiment.

“Right now it’s a lot about rest and recovery,” 76ers coach Nick Nurse said.

The Sixers and Knicks enjoyed 48 hours off between Monday’s Games 2 and Thursday’s Game 3 as well. Then, after this upcoming fourth matchup between these two clubs, each subsequent game will take place every other day. And Philadelphia needs every hour it can to piece every inch of 7-foot Joel Embiid back together, equipped with all the knee braces and body armor necessary for the reigning MVP to go through another battle following meniscus surgery that kept Embiid out for all of February and March and the revelation that he is suffering from a mild case of Bell’s palsy.

The postseason calendar always flips faster as the league gets deeper into the NBA playoffs. The second and third rounds afford little time for R&R, until the NBA Finals schedule stretches back out to two days in between games. Several coaching staffers who previously worked with Embiid in Philadelphia told Yahoo Sports the shorter recovery windows in those middle rounds have played a legitimate role in Embiid’s struggles to advance beyond the second round. The shorter turnaround time introduces an added factor for Embiid, or anyone dealing with a physical hindrance, like Embiid has done during all but one playoff run dating back to 2018.

Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid pauses during Game 3 in an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Thursday, April 25, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid pauses during Game 3 in an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Thursday, April 25, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The 76ers’ Joel Embiid pauses during Game 3 of Philadelphia’s first-round playoff series against the Knicks, Thursday, April 25, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

That spring, Embiid suffered a fractured orbital bone, which required the Sixers to procure a customized, indestructible mask in order to protect their center from further injury — which included a doomsday scenario of potential sight loss. A year later, Embiid was battling knee tendinitis that clearly limited his mobility. His only healthy playoff run was short lived in the 2020 Orlando bubble, when injury sidelined his then-running mate, Ben Simmons. Come 2021, Embiid required surgery for a first torn meniscus, forcing him to miss Game 5 of the Sixers’ first round series vs. the Wizards. Then in 2022, Embiid experienced another orbital fracture, thanks to an errant elbow from Pascal Siakam in Game 6 of Philadelphia’s opening round series win over Toronto, sustaining a concussion that kept him sidelined for the first two games of that next clash with Miami. He returned for Game 3 wearing another black mask, while also playing through a torn thumb ligament. Last spring, a sprained knee limited Embiid during Philadelphia’s second-round failure against Boston.

“It is unfortunate. Every single year you start asking yourself questions like, ‘Why?’ Every single year?” Embiid said Thursday.

This series against New York has put Embiid into a new position among the playoffs’ annual war of attrition. Knicks faithful have prolonged their online outrage about Embiid swiping at New York center Mitchell Robinson, controversially called only as a Flagrant 1 foul, before Robinson left Game 3 and exited Wells Fargo Center wearing a walking boot. It’s unclear exactly when Robinson injured the left ankle that kept him out of the second half, but the Knicks players agreed with their fanbase that Embiid’s action — swinging at Robinson’s airborne legs in the lane, while Embiid was on his back and on the floor — was dangerous and reckless.

“We expect physicality,” Donte DiVincenzo said. “I think the grab that he did on Mitch was dirty.”

“That’s not a basketball play,” added Isaiah Hartenstein.

The fingers will continue to point. And, to use Embiid’s word, “unfortunately,” the medical reports are going to expand. That is an inevitable facet of the postseason, where whistles get swallowed and physicality increases — and the league’s thirst for parity has diminished the differences among contending teams all fighting over miniscule odds to be the last one standing in June. Zion Williamson’s lame hamstring may have ended New Orleans’ postseason run before it ever began in earnest. Miami is playing without Jimmy Butler. Grayson Allen, not the same level of star, also represents a major loss for Phoenix’s thin rotation while the Suns have stumbled to a 3-0 disadvantage against the Timberwolves.

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Let the opening week of the NBA playoffs serve as a reminder that this two-month gauntlet is as much about surviving as it is advancing. Where a Kevin Durant calf strain can morph into a torn Achilles and a Klay Thompson torn ACL can help swing the balance of the 2019 championship in favor of Toronto. Where the Bucks have fallen down 2-1 to the Pacers while Giannis Antetokounmpo has been nursing a similar calf strain a half decade later, and Durant’s misfortune serves as a clear-cut cautionary tale.

New York already entered these playoffs without Julius Randle after the All-Star forward underwent season-ending shoulder surgery, and the Knicks front office is receiving quite the sample size to evaluate what New York’s build could look like in the postseason, long term, if Randle wasn’t a part of their lineup starring three Villanova champions and their key trade deadline acquisition, OG Anunoby. Another litmus test comes Sunday against the ailing Embiid and the 76ers, who will be attempting to even the series at two games apiece.

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