Joel Embiid struggled mightily in Game 5 in Miami — there’s no way around it. He finished with 17 points and five rebounds on 7-of-12 shooting in 33 minutes, and was a game-worst -29.
It couldn’t have come at a worst time with the rest of his team playing just as poorly in the Sixers’ 120-85 loss to the Heat. It’s also worth noting that Embiid is playing with a torn thumb ligament in his shooting hand and an orbital fracture, an injury that was aggravated in the second quarter.
But at halftime, with Philly down a dozen points, Sixers legend Charles Barkley decided to blame the big man’s struggles not on his multiple injuries, but on his frustration over losing the MVP award to Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, which was first reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski earlier this week.
“Joel Embiid is so distracted, in my opinion, by this MVP thing,” Barkley said at the half. “He’s not there tonight. He’s got six points, but he’s not being aggressive. He’s throwing the ball away. I wonder on that team who is going to be like, ‘You’re the MVP; we know you’re the MVP. Now go out here and prove it.’
“But ... when you are mad about something, it can work both ways. And it’s working the wrong way for Joel Embiid tonight. He’s so distracted.”
Regardless of the cause, things didn’t get much better for Embiid or the Sixers in the second half, as they went on to trail by as many as 37 points on their way to a brutal Game 5 loss.
After the game, Barkley doubled down on his claim, while Ernie Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal tried to defend the Sixers big man, saying that maybe his injuries had something to do with it — or perhaps it was one of those nights.
“I said at halftime that Joel was so distracted by this MVP stuff,” Barkley said on the postgame broadcast. “He came out with no energy, distracted, and the rest of the team followed.”
“I’m wondering if there’s more going on there than that,” Johnson replied. “I’m wondering if he’s [hurt].”
“He played the last two games,” Barkley countered. “He played well.”
“He’s coming off a concussion; he got hit in the face again tonight,” Johnson said.
» READ MORE: Photos from the Sixers' Game 5 loss to the Heat
“And I’m just saying my opinion, because he wasn’t aggressive,” Barkley said, digging in. “I don’t mind a guy having a bad game. He was shooting fadeaway jumpers. He shot a three; he wasn’t aggressive. I’m trying to figure — he only shot the ball 12 times, but remember he only started making plays in the second half when the game was out of control.
“He was distracted. The other players — because they are going to follow him, just like they did in Philly when they won the last two games. And he was just out of it. I feel bad, because he’s a great kid, but sometimes things happen that bother you. And tonight he was clearly not there and the rest of the team followed.”
“Or,” Shaq rebutted, “for whatever reason, you just blame it on being one of those nights. The question is: Do you let it carry over or do you forget about it and be upset and come back and play with great energy? We shall see.”
During his postgame press conference, Embiid said he thought the team could’ve played harder, but it’s safe to say he doesn’t agree with Barkley’s assessment — and even added that he has assumed for weeks, like most of the basketball world, that Jokic was going to win the award. But when it came to his mindset in Game 5 vs. his physical condition, Embiid made it pretty clear what he thought was the bigger issue on Tuesday.
The series continues on Thursday night in Philly with Game 6 (at 7 p.m. on ESPN).