They don’t need more from Joel Embiid. They need more from everybody else. You saw it in the big guy’s body language on Sunday afternoon. You heard it in his voice. You felt it in the look of chagrin that crossed his coach’s face as he considered the 38 minutes that his injured star played, and the pounding his body undoubtedly took in the game’s frantic final minutes.
“I checked with him probably five different times during the game, and he kept saying, ‘I feel great,’” Doc Rivers said after the Sixers’ furious fourth-quarter rally fell short in a 128-124 loss to the Hawks in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinals series. “I didn’t like him in, although we had to have him in, when we were trapping and running around in those last three minutes. I did not like him on the floor at that point, because I did not want him doing those things, if you want me to be honest.”
It’s up to his players to provide him with a broader set of options. In order to ask less of the center, Rivers first must get more from the rest of his team. On Sunday, the Sixers needed every one of Embiid’s 39 points. They needed all three of the shots that he blocked. They needed every one of the loose balls that left him tumbling to the court. They needed an all-time performance, and that’s what they got. Even then, it wasn’t enough.
All things considered, this is not a bad place for the Sixers to be. The guys who need to turn things around are the ones with all of the cartilage in their knees. They need Tobias Harris and Danny Green to hit more than one out of eight three-point attempts. They need Ben Simmons to hit more than three out of 10 free throws. They need their bench to commit less than six turnovers in 64 player minutes. Had any one of these things occurred, the Sixers might have emerged with a 1-0 series lead.
Granted, things could be better. They lost Game 1 at home. They turned the ball over 19 times. They allowed the Hawks to score 74 points in one half of basketball. Those are not good things.
Was it a win? No, it most definitely was not. But it might have been a victory. The Sixers might be down, 1-0, but they’re in the black in another category that could prove just as crucial. They have the momentum, and that’s not a small thing this time of year. The Hawks will enter Game 2 with more fear than they showed in the first half of Game 1. They almost withered in the face of the Sixers’ pressure. They had no answer for Embiid.
What does that mean moving forward? It depends on your perspective. And your expectations. More than anything, it depends on how Embiid’s body responds to the herculean effort he turned in. For nearly a week, it wasn’t clear if the center would even be able to play after tearing the lateral meniscus in his right knee. Shortly before tip off, Embiid put those fears to rest. He did it in the most on-brand way possible, striding out of a Wells Fargo Center tunnel with a sledgehammer in his hands and a professional wrestler by his side. Embiid wasn’t going to miss a pregame ceremony that featured Triple-H. And he certainly wasn’t going to miss the playoff game that followed.
“Playing on a torn meniscus is not easy,” Embiid said after the loss. “All I got to do is keep managing it, do my best, get as much treatment as I can, try to manage it to make sure it doesn’t swell up too much. Obviously, the pain is going to be there, that’s normal, but it’s all about managing it and doing whatever it takes to win.”
In Game 1, he did everything they could have hoped he would do.
“Probably more,” Rivers said.
But what they really need is less. Much less, ideally. Less wear. Less tear. Fewer tumbles to the floor. Fewer liftoffs. Fewer jump stops. Fewer minutes.
“My goal is to win a championship, and I’m going to put my body on the line to make sure that happens,” Embiid said. “I’m going to give everything I’ve got.”
The Sixers need to put themselves in a situation where they can win with less than everything. They outscored the Hawks by 13 points in the 39 minutes that he was on the court. They were outscored by 17 in the remainder. The only sustainable path forward is to limit that disparity.
When Embiid was healthy, the Hawks were an opponent that the Sixers could not afford to look past. Now, they almost have to. The goal is to win a title. To accomplish it, they need to beat the Bucks or the Nets in the next round. They need four more wins to get there. There are a lot of games left to be played, each one as important as the last. The more stress the Sixers put on Embiid now, the more precarious their future.