NEW YORK -- They now have a chance to breathe. They now have a chance to think. Given both of those luxuries, the Sixers’ next move with Joel Embiid should be clear. Rest, ice, compression, elevation. Keep him in street clothes until they arrive at another inflection point. If some time off his feet will help get his knee healthy, that’s exactly what the Sixers should do.
That we can even contemplate such a strategy is a testament to how fast things can change in the NBA postseason. Nevertheless, here we are. Five days after the Nets thoroughly outplayed them in a Game 1 loss in Philly, the Sixers turned in a second straight dominant offensive outing in a 131-115 victory at the Barclay’s Center to take a 2-1 series lead. In doing so, they eliminated much of the doubt that remained about their supremacy in this first-round series and entitled them to take a little longer peak at the matchup against the Raptors that awaits in the second round. It goes without saying that to have any chance at winning that one, they are going to need Embiid. And they are going to need him healthy.
One thing we can say about the Sixers in their demolition of the Nets in Game 3: They did not need any more firepower than they already had. The Nets are a fun, young team, the sort of squad you would never want to face in a one-game tournament. They’ve given the Sixers a heck of a hard time this regular season, and they will likely continue to do so in ensuing ones. If you are a max-contract star looking to win a championship in a world-class city, you could do a lot worse than surrounding yourself with Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen. And if you were a gambling man who wanted to bet that Brooklyn would win an NBA title before the Sixers, with the right odds, you wouldn’t be a complete fool.
But that’s the future we’re talking about. This here is the present. Talent prevails. And the Sixers are finally playing in real life like they’ve always looked on paper. On Thursday night, the newest variable to join the mix was Tobias Harris, who slipped into a rhythm after a couple of early mid-range jumpers and proceeded to knock down all six of his three-point attempts while finishing with 29 points and 16 rebounds. In a lot of ways, he is the thing that has been missing over the last month or so, at least on the offensive end.
When Harris is clicking the way he was in Game 3, the Sixers are the team that everybody envisioned they’d be when he arrived. The team that blew out the Nuggets. The team that beat the Warriors. The team that manhandled the Nets at the end of the regular season.
That is, they are a team that has the talent to win a seven-game series against Brooklyn without their centerpiece player. If it’s rest that Embiid needs, then it is rest that they should give him.
Of course, it isn’t entirely clear if it is rest that he needs. He got a couple of weeks of rest after the All-Star Break. He got another one in late March, and then another leading up to the start of this series.
“At the end of the day, what cures it is just loading, and you’ve got to load it the right way,” a subdued Embiid said after rolling into the locker room an hour before game time. “You can’t do too much, but you also can’t sit out and do nothing. It’s hard to manage, but you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to push through the pain and see where it goes.”
That’s a fine line to walk, especially when you factor in considerations about his conditioning. The bottom line is this: the Sixers are at a point where they should err on the side of entering the second round with Embiid as physically effective as possible. They can beat the Nets without that. They can’t beat the Raptors.
Is looking past an opponent a good idea? No. Is it foolproof? Of course not. But it might be the only chance the Sixers have of avoiding a nightly game of roulette like the one that went bust on Thursday night. If they beat the Nets but arrive in Toronto with Embiid’s body in its current state, what’s the difference?
“The body reacts differently every day," Embiid said. “I may not feel it after the games, and two days after I may feel it, so I got to manage it.”
As much as they miss him right now -- and you didn’t need to see Jarrett Allen crashing the offensive glass against Greg Monroe to know that they do -- they can survive.
“It is becoming better, slowly but surely, but we have to be smart how we handle it,” Embiid said. “Every single day. I am sure these guys wouldn’t let me get on the court if there was a chance of anything bad happening, so I have to trust the process.”
If the Nets win Game 4, the Sixers can reevaluate things. But with an outside chance at getting Embiid a week-plus of rest before the start of the second round, their least-worst option seems clear.