The 76ers have been through the gauntlet when it comes to playing without Joel Embiid and/or preparing for games without knowing his status.
So why would the biggest game to date in the postseason be any different?
Embiid is listed as doubtful to play Wednesday night in Game 5 of the Sixers’ first-round playoff series against the Washington Wizards at the Wells Fargo Center. Philly has a three-games-to-one advantage and can close out the series with a victory.
Embiid exited with what the team labeled right knee soreness late in the first quarter of Monday’s 122-114 Game 4 loss to the Wizards. He had an MRI on Tuesday and is expected to undergo further evaluation Wednesday.
George Hill (left knee contusion) and Seth Curry (left ankle sprain) are both listed as probable. Washington will be without forward Davis Bertans, who is out for the rest of the series with a Grade 2 right calf strain suffered in Game 4.
Taking advantage of Embiid’s absence, the Wizards avoided a first-round sweep. Now, the Sixers will try to close out the series in front of a capacity crowd at their home arena.
If they succeed, they will face the winner of the New York Knicks-Atlanta Hawks series in the second round. The Hawks hold a 3-1 lead going into Wednesday’s Game 5 at Madison Square Garden. The second-round series will begin on Sunday if both first-rounders are clinched in six games or fewer. If not, it will begin on June 8.
“We have to prepare as if Jo is not playing,” Sixers small forward Danny Green said.
He added that the Sixers can’t lose their identity regardless of who’s on the floor. They have been able to win games this season with a variety of lineups.
“But [Monday] I feel like we kind of panicked,” Green said. “We got beside ourselves and we lost our identity. So we gotta get back to ourselves.”
That involves moving the ball, making the game simple, and taking shots when they’re open. The Sixers will also have to shoot better from three-point territory. They made 31.6% of their three-point shots in Game 4. That came after they shot 51.5% in Game 3 and 42.9% in Game 2.
However, the Sixers will definitely need a healthy Embiid in order to win an NBA title. The 7-foot-2 center is drawing comparisons to Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, and Kevin McHale.
Embiid had eight points on 2-for-6 shooting to go with six rebounds in 11 minutes, 24 seconds before leaving Monday’s game. However, he was averaging 29.3 points and seven rebounds in the first three games against the Wizards while shooting 67.4% from the field, including shooting 54.5% on three-pointers.
In Game 3, Embiid finished with playoff career-high 36 points to go with eight rebounds and three steals. He hit 3 of 4 three-pointers. Twenty-five of his points came in the first half. He played just 27:54 due to sitting out the fourth quarter.
“We are going to need him to be the last team standing, to win,” Green said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t win this series or the next game without him, or other games without him.
“We’ve certainly had practice, we’ve had games throughout the season, we’ve had scenarios where we’ve had him gone for a month.”
Embiid missed 21 of the 72 games this season due to injuries, illness and contact tracing. He was sidelined during 10 of those games with a left knee bone bruise.
The big fella has missed time due to an injury and/or injuries in each of the seven seasons since the Sixers drafted him in 2014. He sat out his first two seasons due to having two surgeries on his right foot.
On Monday, the Sixers looked lost offensively without their franchise player. Defensively, they had a tough time stopping Wizards power forward Rui Hachimura (20 points, 13 rebounds) and centers Daniel Gafford (12 points) and Robin Lopez (16 points).
“It’s something obviously that you don’t want to have prepare for,” Sixers forward Tobias Harris said of playing without Embiid. “But we do have to be better in those moments out there. I have to do better in those moments of evaluating the mismatches and where we can generate some flow.”