About 40 minutes before Friday’s clash against the Knicks, Sixers center Joel Embiid spoke to cheers from the home crowd, a sign he was ready to go after missing time out through illness. It was all downhill from there. Embiid was doing a short practice session before heading back to the tunnel, and 15 minutes before tipping word got around that he wouldn’t be available.
On a night they lost by just two runs to the midfield Knicks, it’s fair to say that Embiid’s availability was the difference between a win and a loss. And while it looks like the next two days off provide enough runway to get him back on the floor, the focus seems to be on saving him for the big moments rather than trying to steal more wins in November.
“Watching him in the shootout, I thought he was really struggling,” Doc Rivers said Friday night. “He went through about 25 per cent of the shots this morning, you can see he wasn’t feeling well. He showed up, got on the floor, got kicked and just felt bad.
“Obviously we want to win the game, and taking him down would obviously help us. But we also have to think about the long game, and so I thought it was the right decision not to play him.”
With perfect circumstances on a non-Embiid night, the Sixers have enough to win, and enough to win against good teams, as we saw in a heartbreaking performance against the Raptors a week prior. Over the next month, the problem is navigating those moments without the services of James Harden, who is likely out for a month with a tendon strain in his foot.
According to Rivers, a month without Harden is a blessing compared to what they initially feared, when Rivers went to his office after the game in a room with Daryl Morey and Philadelphia’s chief medical officer. Whether or not you believe in Harden as a championship-winning player, it’s fair to say any sort of long-term injury would sink the Sixers, leaving them with a slim chance of competing for a title. But a month from Nov. 3 puts Harden on track to miss 13 more games, putting pressure on everyone to play his best basketball. In the case of Embiid, playing at all is the starting point.
Illness has been the most recent culprit, but after learning after some early-season struggles, managing plantar fasciitis and not pushing Embiid too hard is also a major concern for Philadelphia. While that’s not the reason for his recent absence, Rivers indicated Friday that it’s still a factor, and something they need to consider as they try to revive him.
“It’s hard for him to condition himself when you have a foot [issue], you know what I’m saying? We got things with the pool and the Alter-G [treadmill] that you can run without weight-bearing hardware,” Rivers said. “But first he needs to be healthy enough to breathe from the flu so he can start running again. That’s why we just have to be very careful in this upcoming stretch. Again, we have to think about the long game.”
Without being too alarmist about a slow start in October and early November, the long game is somewhat reliant on the short game. In NBA history, there are only two teams that have managed to win an NBA championship without making the top three seeds in their conference: the 1969 Boston Celtics and the 1995 Houston Rockets. Putting it lightly, the Sixers are far from a group of the Celtics who won 10 championships in 11 seasons, or even the repeat Rockets who shuffled their roster mid-season and won back-to-back titles. And while saying that “the best regular season teams perform better in the playoffs” isn’t exactly rocket science, we can safely say that constantly having to win important games on the road because a header lower set hinders your ability to do a deep run.
In the coming week, they have dates with the 6-2 Suns, two games against the 5-3 Hawks, a meeting with the surprising Utah Jazz, then a break between the Utah game and their second battle. with Milwaukee of the season. It’s not out of the question that they’ll lose all five games given their current form and health, pushing them to double-digit losses as early as November 13. Embiid putting his legs under him is a necessity, not a luxury.
The shame of the start of the season is not Philadelphia’s record, but the lack of a cohesive two-way identity due to the roster shake-up. Offensively, they’ve been pretty much where we expected them to be, a top-five group in efficiency heading into Friday night’s shorthanded loss to the Knicks (they’re still in the top 10 after that). horrible night of shooting). But after three relatively clean attacking quarters, the Tyrese Maxey-led Sixers crumbled in that fourth quarter, executing a stagnant, motionless attack when it mattered most. Insofar as they have an identity, it’s because they have stars creating one, and players left to pick up the slack might resent the group’s unfamiliarity over time.
“With James out and Joel out, it was one of those things where we really didn’t know what we needed to get into to get some quality looks on the offensive end,” Tobias Harris said Friday. “We could have been much better.”
“It’s the first time this band has played these kinds of minutes with these guys out,” De’Anthony Melton added on Friday. “We have to keep building the chemistry and keep improving…We felt like it was definitely a winnable game no matter who we had there.”
Rather than the heartbreaking unit some of us in the media (and many of you back home) thought they could be, the Sixers from the first 10 games have been what their biggest skeptics have guessed – often hurt, directionless, and defensively challenged for a variety of reasons ranging from effort to personnel. There’s plenty of time to knock it down, but until they can get their best player on the floor and keep it there, expect more wheel-spinning performance where we learn very little about their ceiling ultimate.
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