Ask Joel Embiid about the general viability of his surgically repaired left hand, and he’ll tell you it is not a problem. He’ll tell you his 6-for-26 shooting performance Thursday in Milwaukee was simply a matter of missing shots he normally makes. He’ll tell you he does not feel limited in his game, that he simply needs to improve, and is capable of doing just that. The bulky splint on the hand? The pain that he occasionally feels when his ring finger bends the wrong way?
“It’s all right," Embiid said after the Sixers’ 112-101 loss to the Bucks.
But drill a little deeper, and a different truth emerges. Will he feel better when his guide hand is no longer encumbered by plastic and tape? Well, yeah. Does he look forward to the day when it is no longer needed? Obviously. Does the thought of taking contact to the hand prevent him from executing some of the moves that often get him to the foul line? Every now and then, yes. Does it affect him when he rebounds? Goes after loose balls? Contests shots at the rim? Yes, yes, and yes.
“It’s not an issue," Embiid said.
Perhaps we all have a different idea of what the word “issue” entails. For the Sixers, it’s the fact that they have lost four of the five games that Embiid has played since returning from surgery to repair a torn finger ligament in his non-shooting hand. Two of the losses have been directly attributable to Embiid’s inability to put the ball in the basket, including a 116-95 stinker against the Celtics in which the center missed 10 of his 11 shots from the field.
But it was Thursday’s performance that was his coup de blah, not only because he could not hit shots, but also because he kept taking them. Embiid’s habitual critics will focus on the 10 shots he hoisted from three-point range, but the difference between the Sixers’ winning and losing was his inability to convert in traffic. He missed two of the four shots he attempted at the rim and was just 1-for-6 elsewhere in the paint. He was 0-for-5 from the foul line and foul line extended, and 0-for-2 in the rest of the short midrange.
This wasn’t just a bad shooting night. It was borderline historic. Not since Tim Duncan went 6-for-29 in February 2002 had a big man attempted 26-plus shots without making more than six. Nobody at any position had done it this season before Embiid did it against the Bucks.
“I missed a lot of wide-open looks,” said Embiid, who left after 16 minutes with neck stiffness in Friday’s 119-107 home win over Memphis and had 10 points on 3-for-6 shooting and 10 rebounds. “We came into the game with the game plan of shooting a lot of threes, especially with the way they guard us, the way they defend us. They wanted us to get up a lot of threes, so gotta do it, and I missed a lot of wide-open ones, so just on to the next one. Sometimes, you make some. Some nights, you don’t."
Except, no, that wasn’t the case. Three times, Embiid had a shot blocked by one of the Lopez brothers, and the real number was probably four or five when you include a couple of borderline foul calls (one of which pushed the shorter-haired brother to the verge of combustion). His inability to finish the things he started was clearly causing Embiid a great deal of frustration, so much so that at times you couldn’t help but wonder if the Sixers would be better with him off the court.
That’s a complicated proposition, and this was probably the wrong night to make it, given that the Sixers had to contend with a 7-foot physiological anomaly who was moving at warp speed on the other end of the court. You can’t stop Giannis Antetokounmpo, and you can barely hope to contain him, and you can’t even think about doing either when your second-team All-Defensive center is on the bench.
The last time they faced the Bucks, Embiid played a significant role in limiting the reigning MVP to one of his worst offensive performances of the season. On Thursday, it was incredibly hard to look at Giannis standing shoulder-to-temple alongside his teammates and argue that the Sixers would have had any semblance of a chance of stopping him without their biggest physical presence.
As bad as Embiid shot from the field, as limited as he might have seemed, the Sixers nevertheless played the Bucks close to even when he was on the court. Nobody in the Sixers’ starting lineup finished with a better plus/minus than Embiid’s minus-3, and it stands to reason that the final margin might have been closer had he spent more than 33 minutes on the court.
If you were to rank the Sixers’ losses from worst to best this season, this one would not fall anywhere close to the top. All things considered, the mood in the locker room was even-keeled considering they’d just suffered their fourth straight loss. And for good reason. Even on a night when Giannis was at his best and Embiid was a shadow of himself when protecting the rim, the Sixers played well enough on the defensive end to perhaps steal a win.
The central issue was what it has been since well before Embiid suffered his dislocated finger and ligament tear last month. Too often, the Sixers seem to have too faint an idea of how to adapt to the court’s ever-changing realities.
Considering the divergent levels of play they have gotten from their two young stars since Embiid’s return, there is no reason Ben Simmons should have finished Thursday’s game with 20 fewer shots than him. It’s such an easy diagnosis that it strains the mind to consider why that ended up being the case. How much of it was Simmons’ game slipping back into its natural, pass-first state? How much of it was the inevitability of Embiid’s occupying a central role in the offense and disrupting Simmons’ rhythm? How much of it was coaching? How much of it was simply unavoidable?
These are questions that nobody outside the locker room can answer with any hope for accuracy. Even within the room, they are questions that likely would draw varying opinions.
After the loss, Sixers coach Brett Brown did not seem to think Embiid’s role was a problem.
“I like the fact that he had 26 shots tonight,” the coach said. “I like the fact that he looked to get his touches in the paint.”
But Brown also said he believes that Embiid’s surgically repaired hand is affecting his shot.
Those two points are difficult to reconcile, especially when you prod Embiid about the way in which he feels limited on the court. One of the more memorable scenes since his return was the grimace that seared across his face after taking contact to the hand against the Heat. Anybody who knows anything about the mind-body connection knows the psychological scarring that occurs from such an incidence. No amount of mental toughness can overcome our natural instinct toward self-preservation, and Embiid acknowledged that he at times feels reluctant to use the face-up, pump-fake, up-and-under that he often deploys to draw contact and get to the foul line.
“Yeah, I mean, the Miami game, you’re kind of scared sometimes, you’re just trying to look for those fouls and trying to be physical,” Embiid said. “Especially on the rebounds, I think that’s where it affects me the most. But, like I said, it’s not an excuse. I just have to figure it out and keep on pushing.”
But what do the Sixers have to gain from pushing him too hard? Embiid said he is not sure how much longer he will be in a splint: sometime after next weekend’s All-Star Game, in which he will start (an appearance to which the city of Philadelphia will no doubt react with grace and measure).
“It’s still pretty swollen,” Embiid said, flexing the finger. “But it’s not an excuse.”
Even when he is healthy, the Sixers will at some point need to find a way to operate effectively when Embiid is on the court but off his game. Last postseason, the solution was giving the ball to Jimmy Butler and telling him to go. This year, it’s going to take a lot more figuring.