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May 07, 2019

It's time for Sixers' other stars to step up in Joel Embiid's time of need

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050819-JoelEmbiid-USAToday Nick Turchiaro/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) drives between Toronto Raptors center Marc Gasol (33) and guard Jeremy Lin (17) during the third quarter in game five of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena.

TORONTO — It didn't seem like anyone, Joel Embiid included, knew if the big man was going to be ready to go for a crucial Game 5 on the road in Toronto. He walked into Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday evening with his shoulders slumped and a hood draped over his head, and he dragged himself through warmups as slowly and methodically as he could.

The problem for Philadelphia is that his pace never really picked up from there. Embiid's attempt to play through illness has made it very clear who drives winning on this team, and it was the very same guy who was at the heart of their brutal loss on the road.

The Sixers looked closer to the team that mailed it in the end of the regular season than the one who blew Toronto off of the floor in Game 3. They were beaten in ways that were forecast as problem areas before the series began, with turnovers and transition defense dooming them.

On this night, Embiid couldn't save them. Stakes considered, this was his worst game of the playoffs. He turned the ball over eight times, he got trigger happy from beyond the arc, and he even got embarrassed on the defensive end on more than one occasion. Kawhi Leonard faked him out of his shoes in the first half before putting him on a poster in the second half, completing the humiliation with an exclamation point.

If you wanted to, you could present a ton of theories about why Game 5 unfolded the way it did. Is Brett Brown losing the team? Are players drifting apart as the team's unrestricted agents gaze toward the summer? There were bad performances up and down the roster, and not all of them can be blamed on Embiid getting sick at the worst possible time.

But all season, we have seen Embiid wave away subpar efforts from the rest of the group as if they did not matter. He is the guy they throw the ball to when they need to stop a run, the defensive wizard who cleans up messes, the vocal, fun-loving villain who stares down opponents after blocks and provides the team with their soul.

The players around Embiid are not exactly CYO-level, and on their best days, they are capable of spectacular performances. But if you strip away the titles and the accolades, the future money that will be paid out to the whole cast, there is only one guy who can claim to be an elite talent on both ends of the floor. 

Ben Simmons may have gifts, but he has been disrespected in the second round for a second consecutive year. Jimmy Butler is capable of game-changing plays and runs, but asking him to be the anchor of a franchise is too tall of an order. Tobias Harris is a diverse scorer with various talents, but he is not changing the game on defense.

Right now, those limitations and drawbacks do not matter. There is no guarantee we will see a healthy Embiid before this series ends. The Sixers have to rally together when their guy needs them, as he has so often done for them during the three seasons he has suited up for Philadelphia.

Standing up for Embiid

As those on the outside have torn him down and picked at his habits over the last few days, Philadelphia's inner circle has closed in around their franchise center, aware of his importance to their ultimate goals.

"He was trying to whatever he could to represent his organization and play basketball for the Philadelphia 76ers," Brett Brown said at the podium after Tuesday's loss. "He’s trying to get out of bed with a significant temperature and come represent the organization. I think it’s grossly unfair, some of the criticism that he gets, I don’t understand that. And so it’s not ideal, you wished he were at shootaround, you wished he were in film sessions, but he had a temperature for the last few days that’s kept him in bed."

"We're going to ride or die with big fella. Everybody in this locker room knows that, everybody in the world should know it, the fans should know it," Butler added Tuesday. "We're here with him."

Butler apparently meant that literally. After a brief exchange in the locker room following his own availability with the media, Butler told the big man he would be there with him at the podium anyway: "F*** it, I'll still go up with you." He lived up to his word.

"You start thinking about guys like Jimmy, always pushing me and saying that type of stuff. You've got coach texting me, you've got my teammates checking up on me. It doesn't matter what type of condition I'm in, it just shows me what type of support I got," Embiid said at the podium after Game 5. "If it's not scoring the ball, I know I can help so much more just by being out's all about 2.5 hours, three hours."

The gestures are a start. Those need to be backed up with action, because they won't matter otherwise. Harris and Butler both tried to offer some of that on Tuesday in a losing effort. Butler's touch failed him, but he was mixing it up for loose balls and busting his butt in transition. Harris did not go crazy from deep, but he played good help defense and helped sustain the offensive during a horrific performance, despite what his plus/minus says.

Really, it all starts with one guy.

Ben Simmons has to deliver more

"We got our ass kicked, simple as that. There's no other way to put it," Butler said in the locker room on Tuesday.

Talk about an understatement. The Raptors beat Philadelphia in every meaningful way on Tuesday. They out-rebounded Philadelphia, they moved the ball better, they hit open shots, they ran the floor harder, they forced more turnovers, and in the end they broke the Sixers' spirit.

It was such a comprehensive victory that it's hard (and almost fruitless) to pinpoint one area where they failed the hardest. The easiest place to start is the turnover battle, where the Sixers lost in large part because of their own carelessness, not because of anything special the Raptors did.

Butler said after the game that if he were coaching the team, he would just throw out the tape from the game and move on to the next one. I admire the spirit behind that, but I disagree — turnovers like this atrocity from Ben Simmons should be playing on the walls of the practice facility as long as it takes to hammer the point home.

If there is anyone who wears the blame for Philadelphia faltering over the last two games, it is Simmons. He has been anointed as one of the game's best young players, but he has failed in spectacular fashion once the going got tough for the second straight year.

There is nothing that can be done about the holes in his game in the middle of the playoffs. Absent an act of god, he is not going to wake up on Wednesday morning looking like Steph Curry (and even that might not do it). 

But the careless turnovers are within his control to fix. When he tossed that pass to no one in particular in the third quarter, the Sixers were on a 10-2 run to open the period and finally showing signs of life. It was the last time the game would be remotely close.

"I think offensively we just didn't get into our stuff," Simmons said after the game. "We didn't execute plays, didn't move the ball, didn't play with pace, weren't physical enough, didn't have the's the playoffs, you got to bring it. It should never be like that."

That is a failure he has to own. If Simmons wants to continue being viewed as the team's point guard of the future, and everything we know suggests that he does, it is his responsibility to be a driver of change in this department. It is on him to seize the game instead of turning into a glorified spectator; five shots from Simmons on Tuesday night is a number he should be embarrassed by.

The Sixers have taken great pride in what they see as a collection of stars, and Simmons was the team's second All-Star next to Embiid this season. They need him to play like one now more than ever, or they will be on summer vacation starting this Friday.

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