Three days before the Sixers’ latest big test came a reminder that their convoluted roster might still make some sense.
One moment, the ring finger on Joel Embiid’s left hand looked like a normal human appendage. The next, it looked like something you might find protruding from the ground in a national park. This was late in the first quarter of a 120-113 win over the Thunder on Monday night.
The previous few days in Sixerville had looked like a mandatory evacuation was underway, the interstates and frontage roads clogged with a frantic escape from the fast-rising sea. One day away from the 12th day of Christmas, and its supposed championship contender had not won since the first. The sirens were blaring, the emergency lights on, the denizens of this once-fair nation now surveying each other for who might taste best as dessert.
And now the big man was down, grimacing in pain, walking to the bench with what appeared to be a stalactite growing between fingers.
“I was shocked that he was able to come back out and play,” coach Brett Brown said. “I thought he was done for the game.”
That he was not is a testament to the will of the player. But after it was over, and the Sixers had snapped their four-game losing streak and turned their attention toward the Celtics, Embiid acknowledged that his status for Thursday night’s showdown against Boston was up in the air.
Neither the team nor the player was clear on specifics. It seems they ruled out a fracture shortly after Embiid’s finger was reset to its usual position, enabling the center to reenter the game. But after a postgame examination by a doctor, Embiid mentioned that there had been some discussion about a ligament in the finger, and that the medical staff “is still figuring out what’s next.”
“There’s a possibility" he will miss Thursday’s game, Embiid said. “I want to play. It’s a big game. Last time we played them, we had great success, but then again, whatever they want me to do. Obviously, I try to fight it, but they care about me. Whatever they want me to do, I guess. I’m not sure. We’re going to see [Tuesday]. We’re going to figure out what’s next.”
Whatever happens — and, to be clear, Embiid gave no indication that he anticipates missing any games — the incident served as a pertinent reminder of one of the biggest reasons that the Sixers are constructed as they are. With their usual offensive centerpiece limited in his wherewithal for the final three quarters against the Thunder, the Sixers turned to his de facto insurance policy for some critical buckets.
Al Horford did not have his most prolific game as a pro, nor even as a Sixer, but he did score 13 points on 6-for-10 shooting against an opponent that was as close as two points with less than three minutes remaining. More importantly, he showed that he still has the ability to serve as the focal point of an offense, hitting four buckets in the third quarter, three of which came within 13 feet of the rim. He hit a 13-foot face-up, and a 10-footer in the paint, and a hook shot that came off an assist from Embiid.
They were the sorts of buckets that have been few and far between this season. Horford entered the night averaging a career-long 15.3 feet on his field-goal attempts with a career-high three-point-attempt rate of 35.9% as the Sixers have consistently asked him to help space the floor. His usage percentage was lower than it had been since his fifth year in the league.
And while Horford has not complained, it is clear that the new role has been a detriment to his usual efficient production. Only once in the previous 14 games had he reached 13 points, his .391 field-goal percentage a shadow of his .522 career mark.
“Coach called my number there a few times, and I just tried to be aggressive with scoring in the post," Horford said. “We’ll see how that goes. I just have to continue to work and stay prepared.”
Now, with Embiid’s status once again in question, we have a chance to consider what might be Horford’s most valuable role.
There were a variety of factors that led to the veteran big man’s signing with the Sixers. Elton Brand certainly did not pay him $109 million to be a backup center. In a perfect world, Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons would have been able to coexist, and perhaps Horford would be at the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday wearing his familiar Celtics green. Once it became clear that a long-term contract with their playoff MVP was not a realistic option, the Sixers decided that a team built on defense and depth could be a viable plan.
For much of the last month, the potential shortcomings of that formula have been on full display. Horford and Embiid have struggled to find the optimal way to coexist when on the court together, with each at his most productive with the other on the bench. That will need to change for the Sixers to climb back into position for one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference. There is no doubt about that.
Still, often overlooked in the concern about the symbiosis between Embiid and Horford is the value that the latter provides given the former’s injury history. In previous seasons, it was difficult to envision the Sixers competing on nights when Embiid was sidelined. Now, at least, there is a hope for viability.