The only thing the Sixers can do right now is lie to themselves. To deny the undeniable. To act as if.
Maybe it can work. Maybe they can fool themselves. Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Tyrese Maxey — maybe they can unlock something bigger. The mind and the body are funny things. So is the connection between the two. The history of athletics is a history of humans rising above their circumstances. Take reality, create some restrictions, try to overcome them. That’s sports.
This needs to be their mantra, their source of hope. It’s the message Doc Rivers was preaching a couple of hours before Game 5, the first of what could be many playoff nights the Sixers must win without their MVP. He needs his locker room to believe it. If his team spend too much time considering things as they actually are, their playoffs will soon be over.
Reality? Reality says that the Sixers aren’t going to the NBA Finals with Joel Embiid playing 25 minutes per night, however good they looked while closing out the Wizards on Wednesday. It says that, even if Embiid can eventually play through a meniscus tear in his knee, he is unlikely to be the player that they need. It says they aren’t beating the Nets or the Bucks with 75% of an MVP. We don’t know much about Embiid’s knee, but we know plenty about these Sixers. We know how they are constructed. We know the competition they will face. Anything less than every ounce of Embiid is a deficit that they cannot overcome.
That’s not pessimism, or negativity. It’s an accurate description of the impact that Embiid has on a game. We saw it throughout the regular season, when the Sixers went 39-12 with Embiid and 10-11 without him. We’ve seen it in the first four games of their first-round playoff series. With Embiid on the court, they’ve outscored the Wizards by 70 points. Without him, they’ve been outscored by 17. We saw it in Game 4. The Sixers were leading 20-12 when the big man suffered the torn meniscus that will sideline him indefinitely. They ended up losing 122-114.
I apologize if you’re the kind of person who needs to forget about these things in order to enjoy the rest of this Sixers playoff run. But acknowledging them does not need to feel like ruining the end of the story. The narrative tension is as strong as ever. It’s just a different kind of drama.
These are the questions that will animate this Sixers run from here on out:
Can Simmons become the scoring superstar that his critics have long wished of him? Can he be the player he was in Game 2, when he scored 22 points in 28 minutes? Can he become one of the only players in history to win a playoff series while playing both point guard and center?
Might Maxey summon his untapped potential and transform into a legitimate playoff weapon? Can Danny Green, George Hill, and Dwight Howard summon their championship guile? Will Tobias Harris seize the opportunity he has to create a legacy?
“We just have to figure it out,” said Hill, who played in his 132nd career playoff game on Wednesday night in Game 5. “We just have to have the next-man-up mentality. We’re going to need all the guys off the bench and make a spark and even the starters to play above what they normally play.”
Of course, the biggest questions involve Embiid. Can he return? If so, how close will he be to the MVP player who made the Sixers a legitimate title contender? The Sixers announced on Wednesday that an MRI had revealed a “small” tear in the meniscus in his right knee, sustained when he fell awkwardly to the court in the first quarter of the Sixers’ 122-114 loss in Game 4. Meniscus tears usually require surgery and a six-to-eight-week recovery. But the Sixers say Embiid will treat the injury with physical therapy and work toward a return.
There’s plenty of reason to think that we have not seen the last of Embiid this postseason. Numerous players have played through tears in their meniscus that were only revealed after the fact. Kemba Walker, Gerald Wallace, Blake Griffin are just a few of the names. Embiid’s own backup, veteran Dwight Howard, says he played on a torn meniscus for the final three games of the 2015 Western Conference Finals. Udonis Haslem and Andrew Bynum are two examples of big men who played with the injury through the NBA Finals. Add that to your mantra. Add that to your hope.
Reality? Reality says that none of those players needed to play at nearly the level that the Sixers need from Embiid. When Rivers was asked if he was confident his big man could return to the court at his previous level, the coach said he did not know.
“I have no expectation other than I hope for him to be back,” Rivers said. “But I can’t give you a timeline. I can’t give you anything right now. I can just tell you, he’s willing to tell you that he’s willing to go through whatever it takes to get back on the floor. He’s a warrior, and if there’s a way to get back on the floor, he will find his way.”
In the meantime, the Sixers’ only option is to believe. That their star will be back. That new stars will rise. That they are bigger than an MVP center. They must believe that they each have a little more inside, and that it will collectively make up the difference.