Joel Embiid is hobbled and Danny Green is sidelined, leaving the 76ers in a less-than-ideal predicament.
Yet, that shouldn’t lower expectations against the Atlanta Hawks in their Eastern Conference semifinal. Nor can it be used as an excuse should the Sixers lose the best-of-seven series.
The teams are tied 2-2 heading into Wednesday night’s Game 5 at the Wells Fargo Center. Game 5 winners have gone on to advance 82% of the time in playoff series that were tied 2-2.
While they won’t say it publicly, the top-seeded Sixers know anything short of a conference finals appearance would be a major disappointment. And no one can argue the fifth-seeded Hawks are healthier. They’re actually more banged up than the Sixers.
Trae Young, the face of the Hawks, is dealing with right shoulder soreness. But at least he’s playing.
Small forward De’Andre Hunter, the former Friends’ Central School standout who is Atlanta’s best perimeter defender, is out with a small lateral meniscus tear in his right knee. He had surgery Tuesday. Westtown School product Cam Reddish, another starter, is sidelined with right Achillies soreness. And reserve point guard Brandon Goodwin is out with a minor respiratory condition.
Meanwhile, the Sixers’ Green is out 2 to 5 weeks after suffering a Grade 2 right calf strain in Game 3. Embiid is playing with the same injury that has sidelined Hunter. Even though the league MVP runner-up is hobbled, he’s able to play and contribute. And coach Doc Rivers said Tuesday he isn’t concerned about the injury moving forward. He said that the day after Embiid made just 4 of 20 shots, including 0-for-12 in the second half, in a 103-100 Game 4 loss.
“We walk on the floor, we’re good,” Rivers said. “We wouldn’t put Joel out there [and risk further injury]. Obviously, he’s not going to be exactly what he was, with the injury. But I’ll take what we have. So I have no concern.”
Injuries are just an unfortunate part of this NBA postseason.
The Los Angeles Clippers fear that All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard has suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury in his right knee. Leonard was ruled out for Wednesday’s Game 5 of Western Conference semifinal against the Utah Jazz and is out indefinitely.
He’ll be one of eight All-Stars to miss a game this postseason. The others: Embiid, Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis, Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown, Brooklyn Nets guards James Harden and Kyrie Irving, and Utah Jazz guards Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley.
According to the Elias Sport Bureau, this is the most All-Stars to miss playoff games in any season. And there’s a possibility that Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul, who’s in the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols, will be join the list when the Western Conference finals get underway.
But at the moment, the Sixers are more focused on disposing of the Hawks than on the postseason injury/protocol bug.
“Everybody’s locked in,” reserve center Dwight Howard said. “From the coaching staff to the training staff to the guy who runs the Sixers’ social media account, he’s locked in today. ... So everybody, [general manager] Elton Brand, [president of basketball operations] Daryl Morey. He wasn’t playing ping-pong today. Even the ladies who give us the swab for the COVID. They were locked in today.
“Everybody here is locked in and ready to go.”
Game 5 is the most important game of the season. The Sixers don’t want to go down 3-2 and play in an elimination game Friday night in Atlanta. The Game 6 crowd will be just as electric, if not more so, than in Games 3 and 4. The Hawks will be flying around, attempting three-pointers from all over the court.
That’s why it’s important to win Game 5 at home. If the Sixers do that and lose Game 6 in Atlanta, they’ll still have the decisive Game 7 at home.
And if the Hawks should prevail in this series, the Sixers can’t use the injuries to Embiid and Green as an excuse. Not when they’re playing a team more banged up than they are.