So what just happened to the 76ers’ championship aspirations?
The weight of the Sixers’ title hopes rested on Joel Embiid’s shoulders. As good as James Harden, Tobias Harris, and Tyrese Maxey are, Embiid, who is an MVP finalist, had to play at a Hall of Fame level and remain healthy for Philly to win its first NBA title since 1983.
Unfortunately for the Sixers, Embiid is out indefinitely for the upcoming Eastern Conference semifinal series against the top-seeded Miami Heat.
Embiid suffered an orbital fracture near his right eye and a concussion when he received an elbow from Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam Thursday in the Sixers’ 132-97 Game 6 victory, which clinched the series.
Aside from the orbital fracture, Embiid would have to clear concussion protocol in order to play. Typically, a player has to be symptom free for 24 hours to begin the process to return to play.
The process involves several steps: from riding a stationary bike at an elevated heart rate, to running on a treadmill, to on-court individual drills to a team workout. A neurological examination is performed after each step, and the player must be symptom free to move to the next step.
There’s no clear return timeline from concussion protocol because of the symptom-free requirement. But the timetable could be four days after becoming symptom free, if the team follows the rules and there’s no setback.
Embiid was not at the Sixers’ practice facility on Saturday while the team held a practice. Due to going through the protocol stages, he will fly with the Sixers to Miami on Sunday.
The good news about the fracture is there’s been no indication at this time that surgery will be required.
“You can’t be negative about it,” reserve center DeAndre Jordan said of the injury. “It’s unfortunate, but we got to stay optimistic and positive that he’ll be back as soon for our team. But we want him to be healthy for sure.”
Embiid has dealt with injuries near his eyes twice.
He suffered an orbital fracture near his left eye and a concussion while colliding with former teammate Markelle Fultz in a game against the New York Knicks on March 28, 2018. He had surgery three days later and was sidelined 10 games. Embiid returned in Game 3 of the Sixers’ opening-round series against the Heat, donning a protective mask. The Sixers were able to split the first two games, at home, while awaiting Embiid’s return
On Jan. 8, 2014, Embiid, a Kansas freshman at the time, was forced to wear goggles in a game against Oklahoma after he injured an eye when he was inadvertently hit by teammate Hunter Mickelson during practice, according to the Kansas City Star.
Embiid went on to score six points and grab six rebounds in 19 minutes in the Jayhawks’ 90-83 victory. Afterward, the center told reporters he would continue to don the eyewear in upcoming practices and in the Jan. 11, 2014 game against Iowa State. He did wear the protection during that game. Embiid, however, downplayed the whole thing.
“I can see,” Embiid told reporters. “There’s no major injury, or whatnot. I can see.”
With no indication of surgery, Embiid could once again play in a mask at some point during the conference semifinals.
The question is, will it even matter?
Beating Miami with a semi-healthy Embiid would have been a tough task. He was already battling through a torn ligament in his right thumb.
Now, it’s unclear how long the series will last with Embiid sidelined in the short-term. And the Sixers must ask themselves if it is even worth bringing him back to risk further injury if it becomes obvious they’re on the brink of elimination.
Game 1 of the best-of-seven series is set for 7:30 p.m. Monday at FTX Arena. Game 2 is 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday. The series heads to the Wells Fargo Center for Games 3 and 4, which will be played at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. on May 8, respectively.
If needed, Game 5 would be May 10 in Miami; Game 6 would be May 12 in Philly; and Game 7 would be May 15 back in Miami.
The teams split their four regular-season meetings. Embiid averaged 23.7 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 3.3 assists in the three games he played. He and Harden sat out the Sixers’ March 21 games against the Heat.
On that night, the undermanned Sixers pulled off their biggest win of the season, beating the Heat, 113-106.
Maxey, who scored a game-high 28 points, got much-needed help from Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz, who scored 20 points and 18, respectively, off the bench.
That should give the Sixers some reason for optimism, especially with Heat stars Jimmy Butler (knee) and Kyle Lowry (back) both dealing with injuries.
But not having Embiid’s presence for at least a couple of games to start the series could put the Sixers in a tough spot.
Their success is typically predicated on his success. He’s played in 68 games this season: 45 wins, 23 losses. In the 45 victories, Embiid averaged 32.3 points on 52.3% shooting, including 37.6% on three-pointers. His numbers dropped to 27.2 points on 45.0% shooting — including 36.0% on threes — in the 23 losses.
The Sixers are 6-8 with a three-game winning streak in games without Embiid this season. That’s impressive because they lost six of the first eight games he missed.
But the postseason is much different. Embiid’s play was a major difference in the first-round elimination of the Raptors. He averaged 26.2 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 0.8 blocks in the series. He averaged 29.0 points and 12.2 rebounds in the four victories and 20.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in the two losses.
Even that disparity is a bit misleading as Embiid produced 31-, 33- and 33-point performances in the Sixers’ final three victories. So he’s definitely going to be missed.
The Sixers still have a perennial All-NBA player in Harden. Harris has transitioned back to play like, well, the thriving Tobias Harris. And Maxey has emerged as one of the league’s top young players.
Yet, this team has glaring holes.
The Sixers’ lack depth as their role players remain inconsistent, and containing opposing perimeter players who can create their own shot has proved difficult.
The Sixers acquired Harden to finish isolation plays, take opponents off the dribble, and bury three-pointers. They hoped to pair that ability with Embiid.
But for the most part, Harden has appeared a step slow while overcoming a left hamstring injury. The team had been waiting for him to be aggressive on offense while displaying the balance he strives to maintain. He did finally deliver with 22 points and 15 assists as the Sixers closed out the Raptors in Game 6, which is promising.
Harris had a stellar series, averaging 17.8 points and 9.5 rebounds while shooting 43.3% on three-pointers and playing solid defense. But shots were easy to come by while a lot of the Raptors’ focus was on stopping Embiid, Harden, and Maxey.
Maxey thrived in the open court and got to the basket in transition. But those opportunities are unlikely to be as frequent against the Heat, especially without Embiid.
The Sixers are going to need Harden, Harris, and Maxey to all play at a high level to be competitive without Embiid. They’re also going to need solid play from the player who gets the start in his place at center. Paul Millsap started in place of Embiid against the Heat on March 21. However, Paul Reed was the backup against the Raptors, who have a small lineup like Miami.
“When there’s a small lineup, we’ll play smaller with Paul [Reed],” Rivers said in late March. “When there’s a big five, you play bigger with DJ [DeAndre Jordan].”
One would assume Reed would get the start against the Heat in Game 1, right?
“You can’t assume anything,” Rivers said. “Really. We’re not going to be shy with playing different guys ... Whoever is announced in the starting lineup it doesn’t matter to us. I’m just saying it doesn’t matter to us. ... We are worried about that last six minutes. That’s going to get the key for us.”
Rivers said the Sixers will have a center by committee while Embiid heals. Jordan seconded what Rivers said.
“You can’t replace the MVP, you know?” Jordan said on Saturday. “He’s averaging 30 and whatever for the season and has been extremely dominant in the playoffs, the first round. So, it’s going to be hard to replace that. But I think that we’ll just have to pick it up by committee and everybody has to be ready to go.
“Regardless of who it is, I’m sure we’ll all see some time at some point. But hopefully, we’ll see him back soon.”
The problem is, the Sixers don’t come close to matching the Heat’s depth. They didn’t before Embiid’s injury and it’s a larger disparity now.
The Sixers needed him to play at a Hall of Fame level to win a title. Now, to start the second round, he’s not even on the court.