There was a time when Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid was a must-follow on Twitter. Whether it was trolling opponents or asking Rihanna out on a date, Embiid’s early social media game was often ahead of his on-court game.
As his talent blossomed the past two seasons — he’s one of three finalists for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award for the second year in a row — he has pulled back quite a bit.
But late Wednesday afternoon, Embiid posted something to an anxious Sixers fan base eagerly awaiting any morsel of information about his concussion, fractured orbital bone and chances of playing at home Friday in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).
On the surface it was just a standard Embiid tweet about Real Madrid, and Embiid always tweets about his favorite soccer club. His past six tweets have been about Real Madrid, so a tweet about Real Madrid’s epic 3-1 comeback victory against Manchester City on Wednesday — in stoppage time, no less — is not the part that stands out.
It’s that Embiid was tweeting at all after experiencing four days of concussion symptoms: sensitivity to light, dizziness and headaches that, sources close to the situation told ESPN, made it difficult to watch anything on his phone or television.
On Wednesday though, sources said Embiid was able to not only watch Real Madrid’s win on his phone, but FaceTime with Sixers coach Doc Rivers and catch his team’s 119-103 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 2, which dropped them into an 0-2 hole in the best-of-seven series.
To get back into this series, however, Philadelphia will need Embiid to stage a remontada (Spanish for comeback) of his own and find a way to play with two injuries — the orbital fracture and a torn ligament in his thumb — that were initially feared to be season-ending, sources said. The Sixers upgraded Embiid to doubtful for Friday’s game after he cleared the NBA’s concussion protocol and participated in the team’s morning shootaround.
The notion that his new co-star, James Harden, would reprise his MVP form from his Houston Rockets days and carry the Sixers while Embiid was injured hasn’t come to fruition in these first two games — or throughout his short tenure in Philadelphia.
Harden has averaged just 18 points and shot 39.3% in the two losses, his 11th and 12th straight playoff games of being held under 25 points. While some of Harden’s struggles are undoubtedly due to the effects of age and injury, they are also because the Heat have completely smothered him on the court. The average distance between Harden and the closest Heat defender in Game 2 was 3.1 feet, per Second Spectrum, the closest in any game for Harden over the past three seasons. For comparison, when Embiid is on the court with him, that distance expands to 4.3 feet.
“They did a really good job of putting two on the ball and trying to deny me basically the entire court,” Harden said.
Embiid watched Wednesday’s games from his house in suburban Philadelphia, where he has been trying to work through the effects of the concussion and deal with the orbital fracture he suffered near the end of the Sixers Game 6 victory over the Toronto Raptors on April 28.
According to sources close to him, he felt pain and dizziness immediately after being elbowed by Raptors forward Pascal Siakam, and knew that he might have suffered another broken bone in his face and a concussion even though X-rays at the arena did not confirm it.
He knew, sources said, because he had suffered a similar injury in 2018 when he collided with teammate Markelle Fultz and broke the opposite orbital bone in his face.
That injury required surgery to alleviate pressure on his eye. This one did not, so Embiid has been focused on trying to play again while the Sixers still have a chance.
Easier said than done, however.
To play with this orbital fracture he’ll need to wear a protective mask, which has been custom-made this week to distribute the force of any blows he might take in the game away from the exact spot on his bone that has been fractured. He will not likely need to wear goggles, as he did in 2018, sources said.
Embiid is determined to try and play through it once he’s medically cleared from the NBA’s concussion protocols because, as sources close to him said, he feels the Sixers still have a chance to win a title this season.
Those chances have grown a lot slimmer this week as the Heat won the first two games of the series by an average of 15 points.
While his favorite soccer club came back from the longest of odds on Wednesday, Embiid is focused on his own remontada.
“If there’s any chance of playing,” one source close to him says, “he’s going to try to play.”