The 76ers already had an uphill battle in regard to winning an NBA title.
But the hill just got steeper for them after Sunday’s MRI confirmed that Joel Embiid has a ligament tear in his right thumb.
Up three games to one, the Sixers can clinch their best-of-seven first-round series against the Toronto Raptors in Monday’s Game 5 at the Wells Fargo Center.
Embiid attended Sunday’s team video session and is scheduled to play with the injury. He’ll have surgery to repair the tear once the Sixers’ postseason run concludes.
“Nothing changes,” coach Doc Rivers said. “The treatment is the same. There literally will be no change. It’s just we thought what it was and it was [that]. So you just keep moving on.”
That’s exactly what the Sixers will attempt to do Monday night and beyond.
A victory over the equally banged-up Raptors will advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals for the fourth time in five seasons.
They would face the winner of the Miami Heat vs. Atlanta Hawks series. The Heat took a two-games-to-one lead into Sunday’s 7 p.m. Game 4 in Atlanta.
But on Monday, Toronto could be without All-Star point guard Fred VanVleet, who left in the second quarter of Saturday Game 4 with a strained left hip. He did not return and is listed as questionable. The Sixers will get back reserve swingman Matisse Thybulle, who was not allowed to enter Canada due to being unvaccinated.
This matchup could get interesting: Embiid talked about playing physical in Game 5 after feeling the officials let the Raptors get away with fouls. And Toronto forward Pascal Siakam had some choice words about his fellow Cameroonian after Embiid received a technical foul for a rough play on him.
“I’m a competitor,” Siakam said. “I love competing. This is the playoffs, the highest level. I’m cool with the talking. I just don’t want those dirty plays. I don’t like that. Keep it basketball. … At the end of the day, it’s all fake toughness.”
Rivers was asked about Siakam’s comment. The coach initially said he doesn’t get caught up in that type of stuff, before saying blows have been delivered by both sides.
“And the guy talking [Siakam] probably is the leader in the locker room in that with the little elbow blows,” Rivers said. “So it’s part of the game. I don’t know if any of them are dirty or anything like that.
“I thought it was hilarious that Tobias [Harris] got called for one in a game where the guy that was guarding him was doing it all playoffs and has been called for none. But, like, who cares? Let’s just play basketball.”
The Sixers hope to clinch Monday and continue playing basketball for a while.
However, that might require someone stepping up and taking some of the load off Embiid.
The Sixers acquired James Harden to be the secondary scorer to Embiid and close out games. But he’s been a better facilitator than a scorer. Harden is averaging 19.3 points and 9.8 assists in the first-round series. However, he’s made only 12 of 33 two-point shots (36.3%).
Tyrese Maxey’s numbers have been in decline as the series progressed due to the Raptors’ defensive adjustments. Harris has been solid on both ends of the floor. However, he’s better suited as a second or third scoring option. And the Sixers rely heavily on Embiid, who’s hampered with his injury.
He averaged 27.6 points on 50.9% shooting to go with 13 rebounds through the first three series meetings.
The star center thinks he injured the thumb when his hand got caught in someone’s jersey during Wednesday’s Game 3. He remained in the game, and scored the winning three-pointer with 0.8 seconds left.
Embiid donned a brace on his right hand following Wednesday’s game and during Friday’s practice. He had the thumb taped during Saturday’s Game 4. There were several moments when he doubled over in pain and held or shook his hand after bumping it.
He missed all five of his shots and had just one point in the first quarter. Embiid went on to finish with 21 points on 7-for-16 shooting to go with 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 5 turnovers. He was in obvious pain in Game 4 and that likely won’t change in upcoming games.
His inability to play at 100% could give the Raptors or a potential second-round opponent an advantage.
The Sixers hoped to sweep Toronto, but were lackluster in the Game 4 loss.
Harden was asked if their play was the result of complacency creeping due totheir 3-0 series lead and spending two days in Toronto in between Games 3 and 4.
“Possibly,” he said. “I told the guy after the game, ‘This is probably good for us.’ We thought things were sweet, you know coasting and easy. We had opportunities and we didn’t convert like last game and they did.
“But that being said, 3-1. ... It’s not about anybody else, it’s about ourselves. Like if we do that, we’re getting it, we’re growing as a team, which is a good sign.”