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April 22, 2023

Quick Six: With Nets series over, Joel Embiid's health is Sixers' top focus

BROOKLYN — The Sixers marched to a 4-0 series sweep of the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday, which leaves us all in the familiar spring position of wondering what is up with their injured center, Joel Embiid.

If you want to bask in the victory for Philadelphia, a recap is readily available. If you want a look into what we know about Embiid, and some additional insight from behind the scenes after Game 4, you've come to the right place.

The Sixers completed a 4-0 sweep of the Brooklyn Nets with their best player in street clothes. In the initial recap, that first part is more important. Moving forward, it's Embiid's health that will be front and center in the story of this Sixers season.

Doc Rivers' answers on the subject have not been encouraging so far. While we must add the usual caveats about him not being a doctor, Rivers said pregame that he was unsure if Embiid would be available for the rest of the first round (if it had gone on further, mind you). The coach sparked more concern while describing Embiid's state of health following the Game 3 victory.

"Just the tests after the game in the locker room. You think about it, down the stretch he made two amazing plays," Rivers said. "But from my understanding, they checked his knee out right after the game because he was complaining about something sore behind the knee, which is always a scary thing when it's behind the knee with players. There was swelling already, which is way too early, and so we did the MRI."

Following the game, Rivers' tune was mostly unchanged in brief follow-ups regarding Embiid. For the sake of clarity, I'll include the exact question he got on Embiid and his response from the scrum:

REPORTER: Do you have any sense of or confidence level whether Joel will be ready for the start of the second round?

RIVERS: I don't, not that I don't have confidence, I just don't know. I would say it's the same percentage I said before the game, probably 50 percent at best.

While he had no reason to be opaque for the sake of confusing the Brooklyn Nets, the only real "silver lining" would be if Rivers is simply trying to deceive the public (and their future opponent) in an effort to gain any kind of mental edge heading into the second round. I would argue that sort of mental battle is basically meaningless, as all it would take is for Embiid to start Game 1 in rip-roaring form for Boston to figure out the whole thing was BS. I think we're in a familiar spot with Embiid, where he and the team have to live in limbo as this all hangs over their heads. 

That was the topic I was most interested in regarding Embiid – most people had full confidence the Sixers could win one of four games against the Nets with or without Embiid. But the Sixers have responsibilities regarding Embiid that go beyond getting his body right. Can you keep him in the right frame of mind as he deals with yet another injury in an important moment, betrayed by his own body in the postseason again?

Rivers said Saturday morning that he and Embiid had already had a chat about that subject the night before, and that like so many other things during this run, where it fits in their story comes down to how they respond from here.

"Clearly that's on your mind," Rivers said Saturday. "It is, but as I said [to him], this is another obstacle in the story you're going to write this year. And you're going to be okay. May take a minute, but this is just part of it. And that's to me, I'm sure, he's human, and goodness, this happens again. Let's win, let's get him back on the floor, and let's just keep on our own journey. That's basically what we talked about last night."

Anyway, enough with the doom and gloom after a Sixers sweep. 

Tobias Harris is one of Philadelphia's best examples of a theme James Harden harped on Saturday: sacrifice. As one of their best-paid players and a guy who has threatened for All-Star appearances, Harris has nonetheless settled into a role where he may only get a handful of shots and opportunities each game. That's the cost and privilege of playing with Joel Embiid and James Harden, and Harris has embraced that better than ever this season.

But in a moment of need, he was there to be counted on. Following that excellent Game 4 performance, Harris' pride was hard to miss.

"Amidst whatever the role has been throughout the year, I just work on my craft day in and day out for moments like this," Harris said. "I understand the type of game that the playoffs is. It's for hoopers to really shine, and showcase their level of abilities to score in different spots and different times. For me, the opportunities came here, and I was able to take advantage of them."

"Tonight, without big fella playing, for us it would have been easy for us to just lean on that type of excuse that he's not out there. But we knew, him missing the whole game we needed to come together and find a way to get a victory."

The Sixers have long been a team viewed as a paper tiger, filled with plenty of talent (across multiple editions) but perhaps not the grit to get it over the line. There were decisions made to change that – the acquisitions of P.J. Tucker and De'Anthony Melton, the elevation of Paul Reed, swapping in Jalen McDaniels, all of those things have helped round out their rotation with athletic, no-nonsense players.

That showed up all over the box scores in this series. By himself, Paul Reed had more offensive rebounds (8) in Game 4 than the Brooklyn Nets (5) had as a team. With the game still ostensibly up for grabs, the Sixers simply outworked the home team, sending them packing with an overwhelming advantage in effort and activity.

What we see as media, or as fans, or as general observers of this group is what happens during the game. For the Sixers, though, their tougher exterior is hardened moment-to-moment, with little actions that add up.

"A guy like Tuck, who's won a championship, you guys don't see all the stuff," Harris said Saturday. "But from the layup line, the way he was adamant about focus, [saying] we're going to win tonight, we're going to sweep, those type of things just show a winning attitude and the winning nature of who he is. That rubs off on all of the other guys on the team."

And finally, I want to move past the missed layups and the playmaking and all of the other James Harden stuff we can analyze over the next week and focus on how he closed his press conference on Saturday.

I told myself this year I'm all big on sacrifice, whether it's the money, my role, just letting everything go and sacrificing and see what it gives me. I'm not the type of person that's naive, or I'm not the type of person who's – I'm a sponge, I listen, and I can go out there and just be [whoever] for the betterment of the team. So throughout the entire year, people expect me to be the scoring James Harden, the James Harden that goes out there gets 40, 50 points and people talk, oh they can't win like that. And then it's like, well I go out there and get 20 points and 11 assists, and it's like, well he's not the old James Harden anymore.

There's always going to be something to say. So I think about my role, and what I can control to impact this team the best I can every single night. Sacrifice is my word I'm going to continue to use for this year and see where it gets me.

It's the "see where it gets me" ending that makes you think of the impact this playoff run will have on Harden's future. If his buy-in to what Rivers has asked him to do, his discounted contract, and that theme of sacrifice lead to a deep playoff run, it's a great sales pitch to continue running the point in Philadelphia. If he reaches the end of the season and there's no functional difference between this year and last, is that reason enough to say he'd rather give it a go somewhere else?

That all said — he doesn't have to sacrifice making layups for the team in round two. 

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