Will they be healthy enough? That’s the only legitimate question about the Sixers right now. If there had been any doubt about the balance of power in this Eastern Conference semifinals series, it was gone by the closing minutes of Game 3.
The starters were still on the court, and you could hear the sound of the ball being dribbled off the hardwood. The fans, such as they are here in SEC territory, had long since retreated into the thick Georgia night. They arrived late, and they left early, and you couldn’t really blame them. Over the last 128 minutes of basketball, the Sixers have outscored the Hawks by 54 points, including a 127-111 victory at State Farm Arena on Friday night that left them two wins shy of the Eastern Conference finals.
The only reason the series isn’t over is that pesky little question we mentioned at the top. Joel Embiid spent the final couple of quarters of Game 3 looking like a player whose knee is very much a concern. Danny Green spent them watching from the bench while wearing a walking a boot. Where the Sixers go from here will be as much a function of those two realities as their talent. Through eight playoff games, they have looked like a team that is more than capable of bringing the city of Philadelphia its first NBA title in nearly four decades. The only unknown is whether they can keep themselves intact.
The most immediate concern will be the Sixers’ ability to fill the hole that emerged in the first quarter when Green limped off the court with a strained calf. Green has taken plenty of heat from Sixers fans this season, but they shouldn’t shrug off what is usually an injury that takes weeks to heal. There’s a reason he gets 30-plus minutes a night. There’s a reason coach Doc Rivers opened Game 1 with Green guarding Trae Young. The 33-year-old veteran might not be the on-ball defender that he once was, but he still does a lot of good things within the defense as a whole.
Reality is, Green brings value on both ends of the court, where all of the options to replace him are specialist types. If you could combine Matisse Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz into one player, that would work. But that’s not really an option, barring some huge leaps forward in modern medical science between now and Game 4. Otherwise, Rivers will be left to pick between defense and offense, with Thybulle’s faulty three-point stroke all but eliminating him from consideration for extended minutes alongside Embiid and Ben Simmons. A more palatable option is the one that Rivers chose to start the second half on Friday night, when Korkmaz joined the first unit and played well enough to finish with a game-high plus-24 in 27 minutes.
Is that a long-term solution? The Sixers could need it to be. While the team did not offer an official word on Green’s status moving forward, calf strains generally aren’t a question of degree. Once they happen, they take time to heal. Rivers, usually reserved in his medical prognoses, did not sound like a coach who expected his veteran wing to be back on the court for Game 4.
“It’s a calf injury,” Rivers said. “Just with my doctor’s degree, I would tell you that calf injuries aren’t great.”
As for the longest of views, the Sixers’ most significant concern remains the health of Embiid’s knee. He is a game-changer, even when the stats do not reflect it. His final line on Friday night was plenty good -- 27 points, 7-of-14 shooting, plus-16 -- but it was his presence on the defensive end that once again underscored the impact that he will have on this postseason for as long as he is physically able to play. In Game 3, you watched Simmons frustrating Young’s pull-up game with his length, and you watched Embiid erecting a one-man wall in the paint, and you couldn’t help but think ahead to a potential series against the Nets. If James Harden’s hamstring continues to limit him, the Sixers could very well be the favorite to win this thing.
It all falls on Embiid. There were multiple times in the second half on Friday night when the crowd at State Farm Arena swelled with an anticipatory cheer as the big man lay on the court. On one of those occasions, he apparently twisted his ankle after landing on John Collins’ foot. But there were several other awkward touchdowns when the torn meniscus in his right knee seemed a very real factor. Late in the game, he was driving on Clint Capela when his next step failed to materialize and he landed face down on the court. Throughout the game, he seemed to be going out of his way to land on his left foot, dangerously so at times.
“I’m OK,” Embiid said, albeit without much conviction. “I’m standing up, I’m walking, I finished the game. I’m going to keep getting back up, I’m going to keep fighting. That’s been me since I’ve started playing basketball.”
As long as Embiid is out there fighting, the Sixers are as close to a championship team as they have been since the 1980s. Over the last two games, they’ve done what championship teams do, imposing their will on an opponent that has no levers left to pull. Now, they need to continue to find a way.