KISSIMMEE, Fla. — The NBA bubble hasn’t been kind for the 76ers.
Folks will talk about Damian Lillard torching them for 51 points in a 124-121 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday. But the main story line was Joel Embiid exiting in the first quarter with a twisted left ankle, one day after the team announced Ben Simmons needs surgery in his left knee.
Now, one has to wonder just how healthy the Sixers will be once the postseason begins here on Aug. 17.
Sunday’s loss dropped them to 42-28 with three seeding games remaining. Currently the Eastern Conference’s sixth-seeded squad, the Sixers will most likely face the Boston Celtics or the Miami Heat in the opening round.
The Sixers have not ruled out Simmons’ return this season, but they would have to make a deep postseason run for that to happen. So he definitely won’t be around in the opening round. The Sixers would be in for a big uphill battle in that series if Embiid isn’t 100%.
“I mean it’s not positive, honestly,” shooting guard Josh Richardson said of his reaction to Embiid’s injury. “We were kind of nervous, hoping it wasn’t too bad. But, honestly, you never want any of your teammates to get hurt. When it’s your best player, it’s definitely a bigger hit.
As a result, one has to wonder how much, or if, he’ll play in the Sixers’ final seeding games against the Phoenix Suns (Tuesday), Toronto Raptors (Wednesday), and Houston Rockets (Friday). Philly must weigh building cohesion vs. avoiding injuries.
“That’s a slippery slope,” coach Brett Brown said. “You mention Jo. I think the question for sure extends to people like Al Horford, as an example, and making sure Tobias [Harris] is at a place that we can manage his minutes going forward and still find that balance of trying to compete and find a rhythm.”
Brown said he doesn’t know if they’ll play on Tuesday.
To their credit, the Sixers battled back from a 17-point first-half deficit Sunday and took a 92-91 lead into the fourth quarter.
They went on to extend their lead to six points with 4 minutes, 23 seconds remaining. But the Blazers chipped away before Lillard delivered solid back-to-back possessions. The point guard’s four-point play gave the Blazers a 117-114 advantage with 2:53 to play. Then after Horford missed a three, Lillard buried one at the other end to make it a 120-114 game.
Horford, however, made a three-pointer with 13 seconds left to close the gap to 122-121. Portland stretched its lead to three points after Jusuf Nurkic’s two foul shots with 10.2 seconds left. The Sixers had a chance to tie it. But on the final possession, Richardson missed a three-pointer with 5.7 left, and they failed to get off another shot.
Richardson had his best game here in the NBA bubble. He finished with 34 points on 13-for-20 shooting while making 6-of-10 three-pointers.
Reserve Alec Burks (20 points) and starters Harris (16), Horford (15), and Shake Milton (11) were the Sixers’ other double-digit scorers. Lillard, however, was by far the best player on the floor.
He bounced back from missing two fouls and a three-pointer in the final 18 seconds of Saturday’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. The four-time All-NBA player made 16 of 28 shots and went 15-for-16 from the foul line Sunday for the Blazers (33-39).
Embiid finished with two points on 1-for-6 shooting to go with four rebounds in 5:42. He appeared in good spirits when returning the bench in the second half. The 7-foot-2 center was literally his teammates’ biggest cheerleader and even joked with coaches and teammates during timeouts.
He hurt his ankle while landing awkwardly on the basket stanchion after trying to block a shot. He later grabbed the ankle during a timeout with 6:18 left in the quarter.
The ankle was checked out on the bench. He then tried to stretch it out. After the timeout, he headed for the locker room and remained there until the second half.
Sixers reserve Glenn Robinson III returned after being sidelined since suffering a left hip pointer in a scrimmage against Oklahoma City on July 26.
Blazers backup center Hassan Whiteside missed the game with a left hip strain.
Lillard’s was the second 50-point performance here against the Sixers. The Indiana Pacers’ T.J. Warren had 53 points against them on Aug. 1.