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April 19, 2019

Practice notes: Joel Embiid's status up in the air for Game 4 in Brooklyn

BROOKLYN — It almost got lost in the shuffle last night after the Sixers went out and thrashed the Brooklyn Nets on the road, but the team's franchise player was put on ice at the last minute, much to the surprise of the traveling media. Embiid had gone through his normal warmup routine, did not look to be in any unreasonable pain, and he completed his warmup by tossing a ball from the tunnel that ricocheted into Mike Wilbon during a pregame segment on ESPN. Classic Jo.

And since the Sixers only dressed 12 players on Thursday night, you would have guessed they were completely unprepared for Embiid's absence in Game 3. But Brett Brown suggested that wasn't the case when he spoke to reporters at practice in the Lower East Side on Friday afternoon.

"The timing of yesterday, I always have sort of my gut feels of what's going to happen, and judgment of how I really feel he's feeling," Brown said Friday. "It's born out of talking with Jo, really. And you obviously listen to our medical staff, and so I wasn't caught off guard last night."

Yet Brown remains just as uncertain about Embiid's availability tomorrow as he seemed certain about his health heading into Thursday's game, if you take what he says at face value.

"As it relates to tomorrow, I don't know, and I really don't have a gut feel," Brown said. "To me it's always best to plan that you don't have him, and be really surprised and happy when you do."

Had the Sixers dropped the first game in Brooklyn, you'd have to guess there would be some more urgency to get Embiid back on the court. If the Nets had the opportunity to push the series to 3-1 on their home floor, you would have to put him in a straightjacket to keep him from playing. The big fella is not often serious in front of the camera, but he is a gamer, and he knows that it's his responsibility as the franchise player to be there when it counts.

The Sixers, remember, are still trying to balance the priorities of managing his pain and getting his lungs and legs back before they go any deeper in the playoffs. Which ends up being more important — taking stress off of his knee or making sure his fitness levels are as high as they can possibly be? It seems impossible to achieve both at the same time.

It's also hard to know what to take at face value in the middle of a playoff series. Did the Sixers rest Embiid yesterday just to buy him some extra time off in the middle of a series, maximizing his downtime? He didn't look like a man in a particularly serious mood when he arrived at Sixers practice, putting up deep three-point shots with a pair of slippers on.

But as the media made their way through interviews near the practice courts, Embiid skipped out on talking in favor of changing into more typical workout gear and began putting in work on one of the far courts, and only the team will know what he did once the media shuffled out for the day. There is a level of gamesmanship going on here, though it must be noted that Philadelphia's history with Embiid's health shows they may just not know what the heck they're doing.

The silver lining here is blinding, though — the Sixers proved they can win handily on the road without Embiid, and they've proven across the last two games that with the proper engagement level, they can simply overwhelm the Nets. With or without Embiid, that's an important lesson to apply moving forward, and should be enough to get it done against their less-talented foe.

Other notes from Friday

The primary topic of conversation at practice was the trust between the coaching staff and players that has developed over the last couple of seasons. JJ Redick and Ben Simmons credited the player-friendly philosophy for some of their best work in the second half of Game 3, and they expanded on those ideas on Friday.

From Redick's perspective, the biggest difference has been adding high-level veterans to the mix who have the experience to back up their assertions in the huddle. While that can lead to some intense demands, it's a good problem to have, and Brown's staff has invited them all to take charge when appropriate.

"We're pros, we've done this — and it's not a knock on the guys Brett had before that, but they were first, second, third-year guys and you're still learning," Redick said. "Guys that have been through it and are highly intelligent basketball players, there has to be that back and forth within a game, after a game, on days like today."

"You're constantly looking for little nuances where you can improve, especially in the playoffs. Margins are slim, and any sort of advantage, even it's just one possession you feel you can get, you've gotta take those."

We saw this dynamic at play long before the Sixers were good enough for it to impact a playoff game. Way back in 2015, the Sixers had Embiid drawing up plays in the huddle toward the end of the regular season, keeping him engaged while he was unable to suit up.

Getting players to buy in is not as simple as just allowing them to do whatever the hell they want, obviously. Do that, and you have no recourse if they cross lines or fail to deliver what you expect from them. But when you create a culture where the players have a shared investment in strategy, it helps you get other messages across, like when Brown had to criticize them at halftime of Game 2.

You can't turn everything over to the players, but it certainly doesn't hurt to receive input from the guys who are in the thick of it on the floor.

"It's one of sort of the great joys of coaching when you can tell players and especially veteran players, this is what I see, this is what I think. What do you see and what do you think? It's communication and it's a conversation," Brown said. "It really allowed us to break away...when you get a team that can speak freely, speak candidly, it's something I take pride in, listening...they've earned the right to be heard."

Boban Marjanovic has been one of the nice surprises of Philadelphia's first-round series, with Brooklyn unable to counter his size in the paint. But when you ask the head coach what he has most enjoyed about his effort so far, his answer might surprise you.

"The area I give him the most credit in is transition defense," Brown said. "I think he has been exceptional when the game is a track meet...this game on paper doesn't feel like it really fits [our backup centers], and some of our previous games with Brooklyn it hasn't. And so Boban's greatest accomplishment, in my opinion, has been his discipline and his commitment getting back on defense."

With the Nets likely to downsize in Game 4, a topic we'll discuss tomorrow morning, we'll see if that holds up again.

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