MIAMI — If you think about it, the Sixers should not even be here. They don’t want to hear that, and they’ve done a fine job convincing themselves that it is not actually true, but the first two games of their Eastern Conference semifinals matchup with the Miami Heat has left little doubt about the reality of their predicament. They do not have Joel Embiid, and they do not have a chance.
This is not a revelation, of course. Anybody who takes a few minutes to consider the meaning and significance of the phrase “Most Valuable Player” will see how absurd it was to think the Sixers could lose a finalist for the award and still win a second-round playoff series. This was true of Embiid even before he solidified his place among the NBA’s small handful of elites. Over the past four seasons, the Sixers are 38-41 in games he does not play. None of those games occurred in a playoff series against a higher-seeded team.
The irony goes without saying, but so does all of this, really. It’s the worst sort of irony, multiple levels deep. The first level is that the impact of Embiid’s absence during these first two games against the Heat has been so total that it might just solidify his case as the most impactful player in the NBA. That’s debatable, of course. Take Giannis Antetokounmpo away from the Bucks and would they really look any less defunct in their series against the Celtics? Same goes for the Nuggets and Nikola Jokic (although it is just as notable to note that neither are still playing). But none of that matters to the Sixers, maybe not even Embiid. This, because of the second layer of tragedy.
The Heat look beatable. Beatable, at least, by the Sixers in their natural form. Even in their current form, all it would have taken to avoid an 0-2 hole and maybe flip it on its head is nine or 10 shots that dropped in rather than rattling out. That sounds like a lot, until you consider the overwhelming scale of their misses.
In a 119-103 loss in Game 2 on Wednesday night, the Sixers shot 8-for-30 from three-point range against a Heat team that shot 14-of-29. That’s a difference of 18 points in a 16-point loss. The math is the math. When they say the NBA is a make-or-miss league, this is what they mean.
“You can put the game right there,” coach Doc Rivers said.
Tobias Harris concurred.
“We got some really good looks,” said the forward, who has been outstanding in both games. “They didn’t fall for us. Game could have went a whole different way if we get a few of those to drop.”
And James Harden.
“Shot making,” said the veteran guard, who was 1-for-5 from deep in Game 2 and is 3-for-12 in the series. “Simple.”
In fairness, the variables were more complex in Game 1. The what-ifs stemming from the Sixers’ 6-for-34 shooting effort from three-point range were mitigated by the Heat’s own 9-for-36 showing and their plus-8 margin in turnovers and offensive rebounds. Still, when you consider the fact that the Sixers were outscored by 22 points in the 17 minutes logged by Embiid’s replacement, you can’t help but wonder how things might have turned out if the MVP had logged those minutes, plus 21 more. In Game 1, Jordan and rookie Paul Reed were a combined minus-25 in 30 minutes. In Game 2, they were minus-11 in 38.
“Listen, they’re doing their best,” Rivers said. “You can’t blame DJ. You can’t blame Paul. They’re doing their best. As a coach, that’s all you can ask from those guys. They are fighting their butts off, and that’s what you want. That’s what I would want if I was a fan.”
You can forgive Rivers if there was an air of resignation in his comments. The Sixers without Embiid are the E-Street Band without the Boss, the Allman Brothers without the Allmans. You don’t judge them against the original. You adjust your expectations.
At this point, the only thing the Sixers can hope for is game-to-game growth like they saw in Game 2. Reed didn’t pick up his first foul until his 19th minute of action. Tyrese Maxey was confident and decisive, two things he was not in Game 1. Jordan’s minutes were much less of a disaster.
As a group, the Sixers looked like the team they insisted they had been in Game 1, which was a team that was capable of putting up a fight despite the absence of their MVP center.
“You make shots, it’s a different ballgame,” Harden said.
Even then, though, it is not necessarily a win. And even if it was, the odds moving forward would still have felt incredibly long. While many are holding out hope that Embiid will arrive in Game 3 with his mask and his cape, there has been little reason to view it as likely. At no point over the last few days have Rivers or any of his players said anything that suggests they view Embiid’s return as imminent. On Thursday, the Sixers listed the big man as OUT on their injury report ahead of Friday’s contest. That designation can change before tipoff, but even if it does, Embiid would end up playing with a torn thumb ligament on his shooting hand, an orbital fracture on his face, and a cardiovascular system that has gone a week without high-level exertion.
“I really don’t know,” Rivers said when asked after Game 2 about the possibility of Embiid returning. “Honestly, we talked yesterday, we talked today ... he looked good as far as talking. But he’s got so many steps to go through and I don’t think he’s cleared any of them right now. We just have to wait and see.”
They can only wait so long. The end of the season is now two losses away. In Game 2, they looked like a team that might yet steal a game. As for the series, it’s very much like a bumper sticker. No Jo, no hope.