As the 76ers trickled off the practice floor Sunday afternoon, the hip-hop soundtrack that typically permeates the gym flipped to the famous aria “La donna è mobile” from the opera Rigoletto, performed by Luciano Pavarotti. Off in the distance, Joel Embiid swayed his body to the orchestration’s cadence, sometimes moving his arms as if he was conducting.
Embiid’s vibes appeared to be a continuation of the renewed comfort he expressed following the Sixers’ 131-111 domination of the Toronto Raptors in Game 1 of their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series.
After the victory, the MVP contender said his biggest evolution since he last faced the Raptors in the playoffs in 2019 is that he no longer gets “frustrated” when the barrage of double- and triple-teams arrive. He finished Saturday with 19 points — the first time he did not reach 20 since the Boston Celtics shellacked the Sixers by 48 points on Feb. 15 — and added 15 rebounds, four assists and, perhaps most importantly, zero turnovers while Tyrese Maxey (season-high 38 points) and Tobias Harris (26 points) led the Sixers’ scoring charge.
“Just keep making the right plays over and over and over,” Embiid said. “I thought tonight it was pretty good.”
Veteran teammate Danny Green, who was on that 2019 Raptors team that beat the Sixers on the way to a championship, provided an even more positive assessment. He called Embiid’s performance “one of the best floor games I’ve seen him play in a long time.”
“He was trusting [teammates], making the pass, finding guys and giving himself up offensively time and time again,” Green said Sunday. “Obviously, he took his time and was aggressive when he needed to be. [He] took his shots and imposed his will by getting fouls.
“But, for the most part, when he caught it, he was looking to bait them to make plays and finding guys.”
Still, Sixers coach Doc Rivers identified ways Embiid and the offense around him could be sharper moving forward in the series. Rivers believes Embiid could have posted up even more, instead of always anticipating the extra defender. The coach also said Embiid’s teammates “missed him a lot” when he ducked into the middle of the paint.
“That can’t happen,” Rivers said. “Joel was there. We just missed him. We’ve got to make sure ... the ball should actually go there.”
Rivers ‘concerned’ about COVID uptick
Per the city of Philadelphia’s mandate, mask-wearing will be required inside the Wells Fargo Center for Monday night’s Game 2. That’s one sign that COVID-19 cases are again rising locally and throughout the country. Another is that the virus has already impacted the NBA postseason, as Los Angeles Clippers star Paul George missed Friday’s play-in loss to the New Orleans Pelicans because he had entered health and safety protocols.
“We’re telling everybody to be careful, to be safe,” said Rivers, who missed two games in late December and early January after testing positive. “This thing is still here, and we’re concerned about it.”
As of Sunday afternoon, no players had missed Game 1 of their team’s first-round series because they were in health and safety protocols. Miami Heat standout center Bam Adebayo had been in protocols earlier in the week, but cleared them in time for Sunday’s win over the Atlanta Hawks.
“It’s a shame,” Rivers said of the lingering concerns. “I don’t want it to happen to anybody, to any team. I want this to be fair and square for everybody. I want everybody to be healthy and the best team wins. …
“It would be awful if it was due to COVID that someone [loses], but we can’t be blind to the fact that it seems like it’s on the rise, and so we have to do our due diligence.”
Players and staff are no longer being tested by teams unless symptomatic. The Sixers and Raptors, however, will be tested, like all civilians, whenever they travel from Canada to the United States by air during their first-round series.
Last season, Phoenix Suns All-Star point guard Chris Paul missed Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Finals while in protocols, just as the delta variant began to surge across the country. No players missed games during the playoff portion of the 2020 season’s bubble restart on the campus of Walt Disney World in Florida.