MINNEAPOLIS – It was as if Brett Brown was trying hard to be convincing.
The 76ers coach had one of those publicly “we got this” media sessions when he might have been a tad bit concerned, privately.
Brown stressed on several occasions that Joel Embiid being sidelined during the current three-game road trip was nothing to be concerned about. He is was just a precautionary rest. That could be true for the two-time All-Star center who’s dealing with tendinitis in his left knee.
But Saturday’s contest against the Minnesota Timberwolves here marked the 10th contest Embiid missed because of his left knee since the All-Star break. He’ll also miss Monday’s matchup at the Dallas Mavericks and Wednesday’s game at the Atlanta Hawks. Embiid will be re-evaluated before Thursday night’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Wells Fargo Center.
Assuming Embiid plays and everyone else is healthy, the Bucks game will mark just the 11th time out of a possible 25 games that the Sixers will have their complete starting unit on the court since acquiring Tobias Harris at the Feb. 7 trade deadline.
Swingman Jimmy Butler missed the March 12 home victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers and Ben Simmons sat out Monday’s road loss to the Orlando Magic with a stomach virus.
After Saturday, the Sixers will have just six games to find a rhythm heading into the playoffs. Embiid will probably miss at least one more game during a back-to-back set at the end of the season, at Miami and at home against the Bulls.
“It isn’t ideal,” Brown said Saturday about preparing for the postseason without his full complement of starters. “In a perfect world, you’d have all these guys together and playing, and playing a lot, you know, growing in relation to familiarity and so on.”
But he added that resting Embiid is what the Eastern Conference’s third-seed team should do. Brown believes that his squad can’t have it all in regards to building team chemistry and, at the same time, ensuring Embiid is healthy for the postseason.
“You can go this way or that way,” Brown said. “The way that we have chosen to go is the wisest of our options. I’m sure of that.”
One could also argue that Sixers should be able to clinch the third spot without him. They headed into Saturday’s game with a 3 ½-game lead over the fourth-place Boston Celtics, who had six games left at the time.
The Sixers may look to rest up some of their other players once the team clinches the third seed. The problem is, as much as Brown wants to be optimistic, he knows the Sixers’ starting lineup needs to jell for the postseason. And it can’t be accomplished without Embiid.
Harris is a different player when Embiid plays.
The standout power forward averaged 22.4 points as a Sixer in the first nine games Embiid was out of the lineup. He has failed to score 20 point in just one of those games; getting 13 points in a road loss to Chicago on March 6.
However, Harris averaged 15.3 points in the 12 games he’s played alongside Embiid, scoring 20 or more points in just three of those contests. And Harris was basically an offensive afterthought in Thursday’s home victory over the Brooklyn Nets.
He finished with a season-low six points on 3-for-8 shooting despite playing 35 minutes, 21 seconds. Harris did not attempt a shot in the fourth quarter while playing 9:07.
It should be noted that the 26-year-old contributed 10 rebounds, four assists and one steal in the 13-point victory. However, the Sixers acquired him for his ability to score on the perimeter and at the rim -- not to be a fifth-option role player.
So Brown and his staff needs to find a way to keep Harris involved when Embiid plays, because the Sixers are going to have to rely heavily on him, as well as Embiid and Jimmy Butler, to score in the playoffs.
Embiid, himself, needs get on the same page defensively with his new teammates if the Sixers expect to meet their goal of reaching the NBA Finals. Right now, the Sixers are horrible in the pick-and-roll, which leads to poor rotations and open three-pointers.
The big man is supposed to anchor the defense. He can’t do that unless he’s playing.
At the end of the day, one has wonder if the knee is bothering Embiid more than the Sixers are willing to let on.
That’s because he should have been well-rested enough to play against the Timberwolves, especially after an off-day.
The Sixers basically have been keeping things light for the past eight day.
They didn’t have a shootaround the morning of their game at the Atlanta Hawks on March 23. They were off last Sunday before Monday’s road game against the Orlando Magic. The Sixers traveled flew back to Philadelphia following that game and had off on Tuesday. Then practiced Wednesday. A rested Embiid then finished with 39 points and 13 rebounds in just 27:47 on Thursday against the Brooklyn Nets.
Brown was asked Saturday if the big man had a setback.
“This is not sort of a reaction to symptoms,” he said. “It’s just load management. Again, we’re just trying to be smart and deliver him to play in the playoffs ready to go.”
Brown said there’s no concern that this could be an issue in the postseason.
He also mentioned Embiid’s gaudy stat-lines in games following a rest.