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May 05, 2019

Joel Embiid was fighting through illness during poor Game 4 performance

Sixers NBA

After a sensational Game 3 performance in Philadelphia, everyone was happy to declare that Joel Embiid was back and ready to take names against the Toronto Raptors. But everything came crashing back down to earth for their franchise player in Game 4, and Embiid says it was an illness that had him playing at less than 100 percent.

Brett Brown told reporters after the game that his day began with a text from his franchise player at 6:20 in the morning, giving the coach a warning in advance that he might not be able to go.

"Couldn't sleep, I was throwing up, I guess I needed an IV at six in the morning," Embiid said. "But I tried to play, tried to get the win. Obviously, it wasn't enough."

As reporters huddled around other Sixers players to get the pulse of the team after a crushing defeat, a weary Embiid slumped in the corner of the locker room, in his customary position talking to local legend Sonny Hill about the game that was. Embiid ripped off several sneezes while we interviewed Tobias Harris, and his voice never rose above a loud whisper during the time he was available.

The Sixers said they experienced the same phenomenon pregame, with Embiid's sneezes and overall body language serving as a sideshow during the team film session leading up to the game. 

But the big man declined to say what exactly was wrong with him — either because he doesn't know or doesn't care to say — and he refused to use it as an excuse for the way he performed once he was out there.

"It doesn't matter. Once I step on the court, I got to do a better job," Embiid said. "No matter the situation I just need to be aggressive."

Whatever it was, it was connected to a confusing and subpar game for Embiid on the offensive end of the floor, where fatigue appeared to hit Embiid the hardest. He missed three crucial free throws with the game hanging in the balance late in the fourth, turned the ball over on another possession, and missed a shot in the lane with a chance to take the lead with just under 90 seconds to play.

The Sixers would never get another chance to take the lead from there after Kawhi Leonard canned a three in Embiid's grill on the ensuing possession for Toronto.

Embiid did not go down without landing a few haymakers, and the strange thing about his performance is he still had an A-level night on the defensive end of the floor. He made Serge Ibaka's life miserable around the rim, helped force a few of Kawhi Leonard's seven turnovers with well-timed doubles, and didn't allow the illness to completely drain the life from his game. He was +17 in the loss for a reason.

But the final box score says what it says — the big man took just seven shots, and even that feels like a big number given how he looked out there. He couldn't get rolling as a post-up big, as a roll man, as a shooter, in any way you can think of.

To the credit of the guys around him, they all stood behind their franchise big man despite the tough performance. Jimmy Butler was the leader on the floor for Philly on Sunday, and he was the most vocal supporter of Embiid after the game as well.

"[I told] him to be aggressive. Want him to shoot it when he's open, find somebody when he's not," Butler said at the podium after the game. "We still ride with him. We don't care how many you take and how many you miss. You're our best player for a reason. We're gonna win or lose with you."

"We just want him to be aggressive. If you're gonna go 2-7, go 2-20. I'm with it. Like I said, we're rocking with Jo. That's what we need out of him, to always be aggressive. Moving forward, we expect the same thing. He's showed why he's so dominant night-in and night-out on both ends of the floor. He's gonna be sick, banged up, we gotta get him right."

This is now the second game of the series that Embiid has had altered by illness, which officially makes it a subplot of the second round. Embiid said to reporters that this is a real-deal illness while his symptoms before Game 2 in Toronto were a mere stomach issue, but all that ultimately matters is that they have impacted his performance against Toronto.

The Sixers no longer have the benefit of a long break between games as they did when the series shifted back to Philadelphia. If they can't get him feeling better over the next 48 hours, this will hang over Game 5 like a black cloud, and a loss in Toronto would put their season on the line in a Game 6 back in Philadelphia.

Getting Embiid back in fighting shape should be the team's top priority between now and Game 5. They can pick him up with better performances from guys like Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons, who we'll discuss in greater detail tomorrow, but they will need their franchise player to be himself if they hope to steal homecourt back from Toronto.

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