HOUSTON — The 76ers desperately need Joel Embiid to be healthy and well-conditioned to go far in the postseason.
The question is what’s the best way to ensure that?
Embiid said Monday that he’s going through the motions as a way to get teammates involved and stay healthy for the playoffs. Wednesday’s 135-115 road victory over the Houston Rockets marked the fifth time in the last seven games that he’s played 26 or fewer minutes.
“I think it’s good and it’s not, because I want to play as much as I can to make sure that I’m ready for the load in the playoffs,” Embiid said after finishing with 34 points and 12 rebounds in 24 minutes, 38 seconds. “You know when we get there, I’m going to have to play 36-38 minutes a game.
“So I want to make sure that I’m ready.”
In his last seven games, the league MVP candidate has averaged 27.4 minutes. He’s sat out of the fourth quarters in all but two of the Sixers’ last six games. And that’s only because the starting lineup was re-inserted after the backups blew sizeable leads against the San Antonio Spurs (Sunday) and the Chicago Bulls (Monday).
However, Embiid averaged 32.2 minutes while consistently playing at an MVP level in the 40 games prior the seven-game stretch.
He has averaged 30.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game and is shooting 51.1% from the field, including making 38.7% of his three-pointers. He’s also made a career-best 85.1% of his foul shots while attempting a league-best 11.8 attempts.
Aside from producing 34-point and 12-rebound performances on Sunday and Wednesday, it’s easy to see why Embiid said he’s going through the motions. He averaged 23 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.3 blocks per game over the last seven games. His field goal percentage (48.2%), including three-point (22.7%), numbers are also lower. Embiid is shooting better from the foul line (88.5%), but his attempts (7.4) are down.
Coach Doc Rivers doesn’t know how beneficial it is for Embiid to be playing limited minutes.
“I’m always going back and forth on whether not playing him normal minutes is good or not ...,” he said. “I think it’s good for all of our guys. I think the science people would actually differ.”
According to science, a player should play their normal minutes. That would help in the long run with conditioning. But Rivers knows getting his starters out of games during big leads is safer. That’s especially true for Embiid, who’s had his share of injuries, especially entering the playoffs.
The 27-year-old sat out his first two seasons because of two foot surgeries. He had season-ending surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his left knee during the 2016-17 campaign. The following year, he missed time because of an orbital bone fracture near his left eye.
Then, Embiid missed time during the 2018-19 season with tendinitis in his left knee. Last season he missed time after having surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left ring finger, due to a left shoulder sprain and other ailments.
Embiid has missed 19 games this season. He was sidelined in 10 of those games with a left knee bone bruise, and missed the Sixers’ game against the Milwaukee Bucks on April 24 with with right shoulder soreness.
The orbital bone fracture sidelined him the final eight games of the 2017-18 regular season and in Games 1 and 2 of the Sixers’ opening round playoff series with the Miami Heat. He was less than 100% in the 2019 postseason due to the tendinitis. And last season, Embiid twisted his left ankle with four games left in the regular season. So he has never been fully healthy heading into the playoffs
Avoiding those situations is why Rivers sits his starters in the fourth quarter of games when the lead appears to be sizable.
“So for me, I look at it that,” Rivers said. “Getting all those guys through a game healthy is very important as well.”
Embiid realizes that.
That’s why he’s going to do his own conditioning.
“But like I said, it’s great,” he said. “But sometimes it’s also not good.”