If you are a Sixers fan and you have any sort of political capital with the big guy upstairs, now is the time to send up a prayer. Everyone else: Light some incense, cross your fingers, and throw some salt over your shoulder. On Tuesday, we heard the four deadly words: Joel Embiid, further evaluation.
There was one thing that could not happen to the Sixers in the first round, and it happened in the first quarter of Game 4. A dejected big man walked gingerly to the locker room with a couple of medical personnel in tow. Behind the Sixers bench, the team president and his general manager rose from their seats. Forty minutes later, the word came down: Embiid was done for the night.
As long as he is not done much longer, the Sixers will be OK. One day after a hard fall to the court knocked Embiid out of the Sixers’ 122-114 loss to the Wizards, the Sixers were not saying much about their MVP’s prognosis. He was listed as doubtful with right knee soreness for Game 5, set to tip off Wednesday night. Otherwise, all that we know is that he had an MRI exam.
Where the Sixers go from here depends on the word that comes down next. Every game that Embiid misses is one they can lose. With him, they can win a title. Without him, they won’t.
This is the paradox of building a team around a player as singular as Embiid. The impact of his presence makes his absence more acute. You saw it throughout the final three quarters of the Sixers’ loss on Monday night. For three straight games, the Wizards had played basketball like they were on the verge of rigor mortis. Then, with 4:43 remaining in the first quarter, Embiid crashed down to Earth.
The fall was loud, and ugly, but less catastrophic than it could have been. Embiid had been going up for a layup when a block by Robin Lopez knocked him flat in midair and then down to the court. He landed on some combination of his hip and his rump. He stayed in the game for four more minutes. During one stoppage in action, he was bent over at the waist near midcourt, rubbing the outside of his knee. After that, he was gone.
Was this a disaster or a blip? It all depends on Embiid, who will have one day to rest before Game 5 on Wednesday. The official report from the Sixers said Embiid left the game with right knee soreness. The head coach had no further information, apart from acknowledging the likelihood of a precautionary MRI exam.
“I actually don’t know,” Doc Rivers said after the Wizards staved off elimination to make the series 3-1. “I wish I could tell you guys. I really don’t know. I know they’re probably going to do imaging tomorrow just as a precaution. But I don’t know. ... We’ll find out tomorrow.”
What matters most is that he is healthy by the start of the conference semifinals. With or without him, the Sixers are a near lock to win one of these next three games. The Wizards are still a team that is giving serious minutes to Raul Neto. They’re still mortally dependent on Russell Westbrook, who missed 16 of the 19 shots he took in Game 4. They needed Davis Bertans to play like an $80 million player, but he’ll be sidelined 4-6 weeks with a calf strain.
No doubt, the Sixers’ odds are magnitudes better with Embiid on the court, and the Wizards are magnitudes more alive without him. You saw it throughout the final three quarters on Monday night. When Embiid went down, the Sixers were up eight. Over the next 29 minutes, they were outscored by 20.
But three games is three games. With or without Embiid, the Sixers have no reason to panic. In Game 4, they had to reinvent themselves on the fly, and they nearly did it. They tied the score at 110 with 2:28 left. They got big bench performances from Furkan Korkmaz and Tyrese Maxey. They’ve won plenty of games without Embiid. There’s no reason to doubt whether they can win one out of three.
“We’ve got to prepare as if Jo is not playing,” Sixers guard Danny Green said. “We don’t know how bad it is. Hopefully it’s nothing serious. But we can’t just lose our identity. Regardless of who is on the floor or not, we’ve been able to win games with different lineups. Tonight, I felt like we kind of panicked. We got outside of ourselves and lost our identity.”
What matters most is that Embiid is healthy for the long run. The further you look down the road, the more wildly the odds swing. Take the Hawks, who are currently up 3-1 on the Knicks. Against Embiid, they’re a team that can create some interesting problems with their offensive matchups, but can do little to contend with the Sixers’ size on the other end of the court. Against Dwight Howard and Mike Scott, Atlanta’s chances suddenly look disconcertingly strong.
The Nets? Forget about it. Same for the Bucks.
“Obviously,” Ben Simmons said, “we need Jo to win.”
They need more than that. They need Simmons to knock down his free throws, especially now that the Wizards have established Hack-a-Ben as a legitimate late-game strategy. They need to play better defense, and get more consistency from their bench, and make better decisions in traffic. But none of these things will matter if they don’t have Embiid. So say your prayers, rub your charms, and send your positive energy. As long as Embiid is doubtful, so too are the Sixers’ hopes.