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Joel Embiid’s knee injury and déjà vu; am I destined to be a little nervous when he next slam dunks?

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NBA: Utah Jazz at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

“Seen my dreams unfold, nightmares come true. It was time to marry the game and I said, ‘Yeah, I do.’”

“Dreams and Nightmares” -Meek Mill

I thought of local artist and legend Meek Mill when Joel Embiid came down hard on his left leg last week, because before we had the information a subsequent MRI would reveal, (that Embiid’s knee tendons were in fact intact, that the dominant big man did not have the type of knee injury that would swiftly require season-ending surgery) I was terrified that his dream season might turn into our worst collective nightmare. We had just spent the last week enjoying stories about how we have a front-runner for league MVP, wondering about his SuperMax eligibility, and the team’s best overall standings in the East. Then this?!

I had a flash back of a younger Embiid dancing on stage at a Meek concert, around a period of time he was reportedly dealing with a torn meniscus. How do we think he sustained that injury? Or course, by hyperexending his left knee, and sustaining a bone bruise, after an awkward fall from a slam dunk. That whole time being a flat circle deal.

Joel Embiid had the scary fall a week ago tonight when he was contacted en route to a monster jam. It looked like the contact, which occurred around hip level, threw off the MVP candidate’s mid-air trajectory, twisting him just a few degrees. He thrust home a one-handed jackhammer but he couldn’t stick the landing. Most of his two hundred and eighty some odd pounds came down on his left heel and his knee buckled, bending too far the wrong direction.

Sixers nation had a brutal night’s sleep as we stayed up late to watch internet doctors try to diagnose him utilizing nothing but Twitter replays, and we stayed up late watching videos of rescue puppies in order to soothe our tormented souls. Back and forth. Injury speculation, rescue puppies. Orthopedic surgeon’s initial hunch? Itty bitty pity stuck in a hole finds a new loving home. Not much sleep.

By my eye, there are usually several big dangers after a contested dunk: a) you can land on other people’s backs or feet during that midair race for safe landing strips in the paint b) you can try to avoid some dude’s legs by spreading your own legs a bit too wide to safely absorb the fall c) you land on one of your own legs but it’s a bit too straight and it can wobble or hyperextend d) you try to hang on the rim for a safer landing but your momentum carries you, you lose your grip on the rim, and you crash to the floor violently. Embiid was in category C last week.

Dunks are scary. I’m in a Déjà Vu of a Déjà Vu?

Wait, wasn’t there that pregame quote from Doc Rivers about being extra extra careful since he hadn’t been around the team due to his barber incident? Was Joel playing sort of casually but then turning it on to attempt self passes off the backboard? Should he have played less hard?

Before the injury he was making me a tiny bit nervous. He looked a little rusty, not playing in top gear, but still making some very athletic finishes in traffic:

I didnt’ tweet it but I did say to a buddy I thought he didn’t quite have his balance tonight.

I know what you’re thinking. That’s so stupid Dave. Dunks aren’t so dangerous, you did not spot anything, it’s simply hindsight bias. Had he not gotten hurt you’d never even remember thinking any of what you wound up remembering. You’re creating patterns with the benefit of hindsight and pretending they were predictive. And yeah, you’re probably right it’s all silly.

I flipped on an episode of “Stranger Things” and wouldn’t you know it, the town science teacher explained this phrase:

Apophenia (/æpoʊˈfiːniə/) is the tendency to perceive meaningful connections between seemingly unrelated things.”

You know, when we think we’re seeing patterns that aren’t really there. So I wondered if I was seeing precursors to injuries where they were none.

On the other hand, this is how he got hurt in 2017:

There was more Déjà Vu. Two years ago, Joel Embiid was a trendy MVP pick, nearly halfway through the season despite dealing with a bunch of nagging injuries (back, ankle, eventually knee) that didn’t seem to go away but also didn’t seem to slow him down whenever active. They also seemed to get worse after a dunk. Remember this scary play from 2019 that gave us nightmares?

And then this one, just weeks ago, where LeBron James appeared to get frustrated and sent the biggest man on the court crashing down after a huge dunk attempt. I wonder, had the situation been reversed, if Marcus Morris Sr. (who isn’t even on the Lakers but he does seem pretty feisty) would have started fighting everyone in sight!

So is it always or at least disproportionately dunks where dudes get hurt? And is it always near the All Star game?

I’m not going to include them here, because they’re pretty gross. But if you wanted to YouTube the worst injuries from any given season or over a certain time frame you could do that. I did. Lots of them would be players not landing right after plays at the rim or defenders contesting shots at the rim. Basically, leaping as high as you can, bumping into each other in mid-air, or hanging on a rim, and then all landing in the paint together or out of bounds is a scary play.

Come to think of it, I remember when a lot of people speculated that Ben Simmons may have first injured his back dunking in the All Star Game in 2020: member that tip jam? And then he missed the next game vs. Brooklyn. The team said he was sore from the practice following the All Star game. He missed a game and then exacerbated it against Milwaukee days later.

You can get lost on some Reddit conspiracy threads that it was this rim rocker where Simmons tweaked the back. He was out indefinitely with nerve impingement. Here was the high impact play conspiracy theorists point to:

But whew! Saturday morning we got pretty much the best news imaginable: no structural damage to Embiid’s knee ligaments:

Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne:

“Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid has a bone bruise on his left knee and will be reevaluated in two weeks, the team announced Saturday.

An MRI overnight revealed no structural damage to the knee that Embiid hyperextended in a victory over the Washington Wizards on Friday night, sources said. Embiid underwent the MRI immediately after returning to Philadelphia late on Friday night, sources said.

Embiid’s ACL and meniscus are fine, sources said, and there’s significant relief within the Sixers that the injury isn’t something much worse.

Embiid left Friday night’s game when he hyperextended his left knee after landing with all his weight on his leg after a dunk in the third quarter.”

What. A. Freakin’. Relief.

I looked up the similar injury from 2017 when he had hyperextension and bruising. Joel at the time said something interesting about having sustained something similar in college once:

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “But I am kind of flexible. I think I am flexible, so it is supposed to happen.”

In conclusion, ...well let’s be honest, I really wasn’t able to conclude anything. But off the top of my head, it sure seems like dunks have been one of the riskier plays for this team and other teams over the years. I’m not saying “the Sixers need to stop dunking” but I might feel a tiny bit nervous for a while until I’ve seen our best players land safely again. And if they wanted to mix in a little bit more Nikola Jokic or Tim Duncan, and a little less Shaq or Kevin Garnett? I certainly wouldn’t complain. But maybe I’m just a wimp. I also hope that Embiid doesn’t wind up very out of shape with all of the rest/rehab he’ll need to do. He’s put so much into changing his workout habits and diet, you’d hate for an extended rest period following injury to discourage him.