But this night's true battle -- and the evening's greatest drama -- is the one between Joel Embiid and the forces of gravity. As usual, Embiid is losing.
Less than two minutes into the game, Embiid backs Al Horford down into the paint, falling backward -- and to the floor -- before hoisting a shot that hits the underside of the rim. Seven minutes later, while trying to guard Kyrie Irving, the Sixers' Quicker-Tripper-Upper, fooled by the guard's shot-fake, all but pancakes Irving onto the floor. One minute later, the big man widens his stance while setting a handoff screen for JJ Redick, prompting Boston forward Jaylen Brown to barrel into Embiid, who winds up, yet again, on his butt. About seven minutes into the second quarter, Sir Falls-A-Lot hits the deck for the fourth time this half, catching a pass on the right block before turning into a double-team and drawing a foul, stumbling to the floor.
His fifth on-court crumble nearly starts a fight less than a minute into the third quarter, when Celtics guard and resident irritant Marcus Smart shoves Embiid in the back in retaliation for a hard shoulder the Sixers star had just thrown, and the shove in turn sends Embiid flying headfirst toward the baseline, where he braces his fall with his elbows before hopping up and charging back at Smart. The play seemingly enlivens the falling star, who hurtles to the floor a sixth time two minutes later, after driving to his right and finishing through contact initiated by Jayson Tatum for a 3-point play.
In the opening minute of the fourth, Embiid goes full Hakeem, displaying an array of pump-fakes on Horford, turning left, then right, then left again before tripping over the Boston center's foot and drawing a foul call for Spill No. 7. Embiid's eighth fall from grace comes a few minutes later, when, while crashing the glass on a Jimmy Butler jumper, he falls hard after leaping onto Irving's back. Finally, in the final minute of a now 113-113 game, one the Sixers will ultimately win, Mr. Slippy catches the ball near the left block, faces up and dribbles once before throwing his right shoulder into Horford, sending both men to the floor and drawing a defensive foul.
Tally up all the falling down, and in this victory over the Celtics, Joel Embiid has tipped over no fewer than nine times.
Sound like a lot? It is a lot. To study it further is to discover that it's less of an anomaly than a matter of course: A possession-by-possession video analysis of Embiid's season reveals that he has fallen 244 times since the start of the 2018-19 campaign, which comes out to 3.3 times per game or roughly one fall for every 10 minutes the Sixers center spends on the court.
How does that falling down stack up? Although no falls-per-36-minutes metric exists on a leaguewide scale, we studied five games of video on five other players known for regularly denting the floor: Ersan Ilyasova, who led the NBA this season in drawing charges; Blake Griffin, second in charges; Jusuf Nurkic, who, like Griffin, gets hit constantly; Russell Westbrook, perhaps the sport's most aggressive player; and James Harden, the reigning MVP who drives to the basket -- and, well, flops -- more than anyone.
The takeaway: Embiid indeed belongs on the NBA's Mount Rushmore of Frequent Fallers. He falls more often, on a per-minute basis, than Griffin (every 14 minutes), Nurkic (every 13 minutes) and Westbrook (every 12 minutes) and at roughly the same rate as Ilyasova (every nine minutes) and remains upright a bit more frequently than Harden (every eight minutes). But among true big men -- those with farther to fall and bigger bones to bust -- Embiid stands alone in his inability to remain standing.
IF A TREE falls in a forest, and no one is there to hear it, then one thing is for certain: That tree is not Joel Embiid. Few athletes have been seen falling by more people, more frequently.
Each game is a virtual meteor shower for the Sixers' falling star.
It has gotten to the point that teammates barely register his tumbles. Says Butler, when asked about Embiid's falls, "With Joel, it's kind of like what D-Wade said: 'Fall seven times, stand up eight.'"
The folks working the baselines are equally unfazed. "I remember he stepped on my foot one game earlier this year trying to keep his balance. We've just kind of come to expect [the close calls]; it comes with the territory at this point," says cameraman Charles Bailey, who works home games at the Wells Fargo Center.
It's another thing altogether for Sixers fans, who have their limits on just how much they can take of seeing their star knocked down.
"I've been a season-ticket holder 43 years, and he falls more than anyone I've ever seen," says Duane Sophia, a native of Lititz, Pennsylvania, as he watches Embiid warm up before a game. "He falls hard all the time, and you're always worried that he's going to hurt something."
Consider that Embiid missed all 164 of Philadelphia's games in his first two seasons in the NBA, a span in which he had multiple surgeries on and persistent problems with his right foot. The franchise finally got a taste of his stardom in 2016, but even that was short-lived. After playing in 31 games, he missed the remainder of the season after he was found to have a torn meniscus in his left knee, which required surgery. Since those first two seasons he sat out, Embiid has missed an additional 88 games over the past three seasons.
But it's also abundantly clear to just about everyone that he's the club's most valuable player. Case in point: Since Embiid made his October 2016 debut with Philly, the Sixers have been almost 13 points better per 100 possessions, going from a 4.2-point deficit with him on the bench to a whopping 8.7-point advantage when the big man is on the court, according to NBA Advanced Stats. The difference is just as apparent from a wins-and-losses standpoint. With Embiid in the lineup, the club has won an impressive 61 percent of its contests since the start of 2016-17; without him, the Sixers have prevailed just 39 percent of the time.
There's more: The Sixers' midseason trades for Butler and Tobias Harris delivered them the East's best starting five but took a drastic toll on their bench depth. When Philly fails to get out in transition, it reveals the limitations of point-forward Ben Simmons, whose lack of a jumper generally leaves top-end defenses daring him to shoot in the half-court scenarios that are more common in the playoffs.
It is arguable that no franchise is as wholly reliant upon a single set of limbs as the 76ers are upon those of Embiid. For a team that so famously invested in a years-long process to bring the likes of exactly him to the team, there could be no more tragic possibility than a once-in-a-generation basketball unicorn felled by something so pedestrian as the force of gravity.
So it is that every one of Embiid's falls feels fraught, perilous and possibly catastrophic -- and 76ers Nation teeters each time its frequent faller suffers another bumpy landing.
But it still begs the question: Why in the world does Joel Embiid fall down so damn much?
THEORY ONE: JOEL EMBIID FALLS BECAUSE HE'S A KLUTZ
On Dec. 17, during the second quarter of a game against the Spurs, Embiid delivers a handoff to Redick, takes literally one step and promptly ends up on the floor after somehow -- Chris Farley-like -- getting his left foot tangled with San Antonio's Patty Mills, who manages to stay upright as play continues.
A few months later, during the third quarter of a Feb. 8 win over Denver, a skyward Embiid seeks to block a Trey Lyles shot attempt, a play that results in an NBA-style version of "Ring Around the Rosie." To the surprise of no one, Embiid falls to the hardwood. But with his aggressive block attempt, he brings Lyles and new Sixers teammate Mike Scott down with him.
"Sometimes," Redick says, "I don't think Joel really quite has a grasp on his body."
Then, a mere two days later, after Butler misses a second-quarter shot on Feb. 10 against the Lakers, Embiid cartoonishly trips and falls over his teammate's foot near the baseline, while Butler -- totally unscathed -- gets back on defense for the following possession.
One month after that, during the final minute of a March 12 game against Cleveland, Embiid, after tossing up a floater in the lane, thunderously slams home his own miss with a dunk so vicious that it sends him stumbling to the floor. The very next play, on the other end of the floor, Embiid patrols the paint and tries to swat Jordan Clarkson at the rim but ends up flat on his back after the Cavs guard misses and undercuts the airborne center's legs in the scrum of bodies. (This is one of eight times during the season that Embiid fell down on consecutive plays.)
Five days later, on March 17 against the Bucks, with just more than a minute left in the third quarter, Redick takes a transition foul on Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo a full second before a leaping Embiid comes flying in, full throttle, knocking Redick headfirst into the stanchion.
Says Redick, with more forgiveness than most humans would show after suffering the effect of a 7-foot-2, 280-pound man's gracelessness: "He nearly decapitated me with that Milwaukee fall."
THEORY TWO: JOEL EMBIID FALLS A LOT BECAUSE HE'S A FLOPPER
Take a first-quarter play from an Oct. 27 game against Charlotte: Embiid gets the ball on the left wing, dribbles and gets stripped cleanly by Kemba Walker. There appears to be no sort of collision, and even if there has been, Walker has swatted the ball toward the right baseline, yet somehow the far heavier Embiid has inexplicably tumbled the opposite way. No whistle ensues, but you can see the wheels turning in the big man's head as he mentally computes whether a fall, completely unnatural, would be worth it anymore. Still, he falls anyway, with a farcical dive befitting a man who once played youth soccer.
A month later, less than a minute into the Sixers' Nov. 30 contest with the Wizards, Embiid collects the ball after a Thomas Bryant dunk and inadvertently bumps into the Wizards forward. Embiid, in response, acts as if he has been hit by a sniper, lurching forward and tucking his arms in hopes of selling Tyler Ford, the nearest referee. (Ford, unmoved, calls a delay of game.)
That isn't to suggest that this salesmanship never works. To return to the Milwaukee game (you know, the one in which Embiid nearly kills Redick) is to encounter a play early in the second quarter on which Embiid and Simmons simultaneously appear to slip on banana peels, both of their heels completely in the air, as they go for an offensive board. The whistle blows; Embiid has drawn a loose-ball foul on Bucks forward D.J. Wilson, who, truth be told, barely touched the Sixers franchise player. Success!
THEORY THREE: JOEL EMBIID FALLS A LOT BECAUSE HE'S A TROLL
You know the aphorism: "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all."
Joel Embiid famously does not prescribe to this notion.
And so, in turn, Embiid sometimes gets shoved -- shoved for playing the role of an agitator, shoved for frustrating opponents with his elite skill set as a post player, shoved for his antics and voluminous trash-talking, as infamous on social media as on the court itself.
Consider one week into the season, when Embiid succeeds in burrowing under the skin of Detroit's Andre Drummond, dominating the Pistons' big man throughout the game before getting him ejected in the final minute of regulation in a one-possession game. Embiid scores a basket, then, as he begins to retreat, takes an exaggerated fall to the floor after Drummond extends an elbow -- but makes no meaningful contact with Embiid. Because Drummond already has one technical, and officials deem this a second, Drummond's night is over.
"I got him out of here!" a smiling Embiid shouts.
The following day, Embiid receives a warning from the league office for flopping, and Drummond has his second technical rescinded. Still, Drummond acknowledges that Embiid's needling had the Pistons center playing outside of himself for stretches of the game. (Also, the game is in the books.) For the simple cost of a tumble -- something he does all the time anyway -- Joel Embiid is more than happy to oblige.
THEORY FOUR: JOEL EMBIID FALLS A LOT BECAUSE HE TAKES UNNECESSARY FLIGHTS
The irony is rich: The Cameroonian didn't pick up the sport until the age of 15, both because basketball isn't widely celebrated there and because his father, Thomas, feared the game was dangerous. Nonetheless, Joel Embiid plays the game with a recklessness that would put Johnny Knoxville to shame.
In late January against the Lakers, when Embiid tries to throw down a one-handed alley-oop offering from Simmons, he lands awkwardly, his legs buckling underneath him, and even the Los Angeles crowd grasps how problematic the play looks. The collective faithful release an audible groan as Embiid grimaces, holding his back.
During a Feb. 13 win over the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, Embiid gives chase for a loose ball headed for the sideline, forcing him to hurdle actress Regina King, who was sitting courtside. In a minor miracle, Embiid lands safely in the lap of an MSG Network statistician, managing to knock over only a monitor in the free fall.
"Sometimes, I don't think Joel really quite has a grasp on his body."JJ Redick
Neither fans nor players are harmed in the making of that SportsCenter highlight, but as with every other of the 243 falls Embiid has taken this season, it scares the hell out of Sixers coach Brett Brown. "Remember when you'd take your kid to the playground, and they'd fall from a swing? And it's always like, 'Oh!'" Brown says, gasping in shock, after being asked if he has any worry about Embiid's falls. "It's the same way with me for him. Every single time."
Take, for instance, the time in the third quarter of an April 4 home game against the Bucks when Embiid goes up for a one-handed dunk. Antetokounmpo pins the attempt against the backboard. Embiid falls on his tailbone. Even on television, the Philly crowd's reaction sounds like the audience at a horror film, and the Sixers race to commit a take foul so Embiid can be checked on by team physicians.
"It's actually worse watching him fall in person. When it's on TV, the camera keeps moving along with the play, so you may not see him lying there on the ground," says 16-year-old Mark Colligan, a native of Washington Township, New Jersey, wearing an Embiid jersey at a recent playoff game in Philadelphia. "But when you're here, [Embiid on the floor] is the only thing everyone is focused on. Everyone's just thinking, 'Please get up. Please get up.' There's a huge gasp in the room."
AND SO WE are left with myriad theories -- and one tantalizing clue: To review all 28 of Embiid's collegiate games is to find that he fell to the floor a total of 38 times in 647 minutes, or about once every 17 minutes of playing time. That means NBA Embiid falls nearly twice as frequently as NCAA Embiid.
Why is that, given all the additional muscle he has put on, all the extraordinary value he carries as a franchise player and all the injury concerns that surround him?
We did what any reasonable person would do -- indeed, what any reasonable person could have done from the very start -- and asked The Fall Guy himself: Why do you play like a gigantic, wobbly toddler?
At the team's practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, just seconds before he vanishes from sight to take a post-workout shower, Embiid smiles when asked about his frequent falls. "It was something I learned during my rehab when I was going through the foot injury, when I was trying to find ways to limit the impact on my body in 2014," he says. "I was told that every time I feel like I'm in a situation where it's going to be some type of extreme [weight] on my leg, I've got to dive or just roll onto the floor. So that's why I do it."
Embiid appears to have taken at least one other step to that end: When he dunks, he generally appears to hang on the rim for a split-second longer than he once did, perhaps to avoid putting too much strain on one leg or foot.
Although the specialists who have worked with Embiid declined to comment for this story, the craft of falling is one commonly taught in martial arts, from judo to jiu-jitsu. By artfully tumbling to the floor, rather than landing awkwardly on a foot, martial artists "distribute the force of impact over the widest area possible to disperse the force of the fall," says Paul Schreiner, head instructor at Marcelo Garcia Jiu-Jitsu in New York City.
Put another way: By falling, rather than bracing for impact by placing his weight on a planted foot or hand, an athlete decreases the likelihood of sustaining a joint injury.
So there you have it. An entire city freaks out each time its best player falls because fans think that by falling he might get hurt. Meanwhile, that player is intentionally falling so he doesn't get hurt.
"I know there are fans that are always thinking, 'No!' each time I fall, but that's why I do it," Embiid says with a brief grin before heading for the showers. "The specialists for my foot told me to do it."
Some might say that in Joel Embiid's mind, falling is a process -- and he's inclined to trust it.