April 14, 2019
The Sixers' Game 1 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday was a perfect example of Murphy's Law — what can go wrong, will — as Philly was forced to play with a less-than-100-percent Joel Embiid and struggled shooting, passing, and basically everywhere else on the court.
The lone bright spot was Jimmy Butler, but even his career playoff-high of XX points was overshadowed by the Sixers dropping the series opener, being booed by their home fans, and even sparking a mini controversy on the bench. That doesn't even take into consideration the health of their best player, Joel Embiid, who returned to the Sixers lineup but certainly didn't look like his normal self on the court.
And that's where we'll start today's edition of What They're Saying, with the health of their big man and a potential cause for concern moving forward.
The good news was that Joel Embiid was able to play for the Sixers on Saturday. The bad news is, as we saw against the Nets, that the Sixers are going to need Embiid this series, while Embiid looks like he could use even more rest, rest that unfortunately won't be coming until the Sixers are eliminated.
Out in San Diego, Dr. David Chao, who Eagles fans may know as @ProFootballDoc on Twitter, offered up his evaluation of Embiid, based in large part on the picture of Embiid wearing that knee brace during pregame warmups, as well as his play. And it's not good news for Sixers fans hoping the All-Star center's knee issues will just suddenly go away.
The brace shown is used for unicompartmental arthritis. It could be used for a bone bruise, but absent an acute injury that is unlikely. And given Embiid’s long-term value, I doubt the Sixers medical staff would allow him to play through a bone bruise to risk further damage.
Therefore the brace almost certainly means Embiid’s longevity is in question.
Assuming the brace means he has some sort of arthritis, there is no complete cure. There can only be management of the issue. [sandiegouniontribune.com]
Embiid not playing at full health also has a ripple effect down the rest of the roster, which isn't great considering the Sixers were already feeling the heat before their Game 1 loss to the Nets. Now, after quickly giving away home-court advantage, the pressure is really on the Sixers.
Taking into account injuries and in-season trades, the Sixers current starting five has played fewer than a dozen games together this year, and the postseason isn't exactly the time of year you want to be working out those kinks. An injured Embiid only makes that all the more difficult.
Now things get interesting. Even before the No. 6-seeded Nets upset the No. 3-seeded Sixers, a Brooklyn player told ESPN before the game that he liked his team's chances because, "All the pressure's on them."
With two days between Games 1 and 2, Embiid won't all of a sudden get his conditioning back. Sure, he could shoot better as the series goes on (as could the Sixers as a whole after they went a paltry 3-for-25 from 3 on Saturday).
Both Harris and general manager Elton Brand described Embiid as "a warrior." There's a chance he drags that left leg of his up and down the court game after game, round after round and the Sixers make that deep run their owner is calling for. Then again, there's a chance he doesn't.
Without Embiid as the superstar centerpiece, Philly's whole equation is off. Simmons had only nine points and three assists in Game 1, and Harris and Redick both shot an identically disappointing 2-for-7. [espn.com]
Perhaps the biggest indictment of the Sixers on Sunday is the first line of this last paragraph by Kurt Helin. And it's hard to deny that the Sixers looked less interested in winning yesterday's game than their opponents. And that's especially damning considering the above sentiment from a Nets player that "all the pressure is on them."
Joel Embiid was not the player the Sixers needed him to be. The Sixers best player was a game-time decision with knee pain but decided to play through it and wasn’t himself, except in flashes. Embiid put up numbers — 22 points on 5-of-15 shooting, 15 rebounds, and five blocks — but he wasn’t able to impact the game the way he was used to. He started the game shooting 1-of-9 and was not moving well at points.
In what seemed to symbolize the Sixers approach to the night, Amir Johnson and Embiid were caught checking texts on a phone during the loss. Johnson was fined by the team for that.
Brooklyn, a team of underdogs and cast-offs, played harder and with more passion than the star-studded Sixers. The Nets had a we-have-nothing-to-lose attitude that seemed to free them. D’Angelo Russell, in his playoff debut, was 3-of-15 shooting in the first half, but was 7-of-10 in the second half and finished with 26. Russell made sure there would be no comeback. [nba.nbcsports.com]
Philly lived up to its Negadelphia moniker on Saturday, but as we're starting to see, maybe there's good reason for that concern. As John Gonzalez points out, the Sixers should have the best starting five in the NBA, but as we previously mentioned, they lack the experience together they need.
The Sixers won more than 50 games for the second season in a row. It’s the first time that’s happened in more than three decades, and yet civic confidence is waning. It’s only one game—everyone around here keeps repeating that to each other, like a parochial Gregorian chant—but there’s genuine cause for concern with the Sixers right now. Embiid’s questionable health alone is reason to worry. Beyond that, Philly is facing a team whose chemistry has the Sixers looking like a pack of strangers in comparison. It’s not just optics, it’s reality: The starting five of Simmons, Redick, Butler, Harris, and Embiid played only 10 regular-season games together. They went 8-2 in that stretch and had a 119 offensive rating and a 101.4 defensive rating, according to NBA.com/Stats, which would make them the best five-man lineup in the league by a wide margin if only we could overlook that they averaged just 16.1 minutes per game as a unit. In the run-up to the series, the Philly media and fans did a lot of hand-wringing about the team not knowing how to play together yet. That initially felt like the usual provincial fatalism—this city has led the league in that metric for as long as I can remember—but after Saturday, it’s hard to blame people for fretting. [theringer.com]
With Embiid not being his normal self, the Sixers need Ben Simmons to wake up and play like an All-Star, not whatever it was he looked like on Saturday. That being said, even with as bad as the Sixers looked in Game 1, they still only lost by nine.
They'll need to play better, sure, but it's hard to imagine them playing that poorly for a second straight game.
Brett Brown can help Simmons by finding ways to let him play faster, though this is a longstanding concern for a team that also heavily relies on a back-to-the-basket player in Joel Embiid. Speaking of Embiid, he clearly did not look healthy in Game 1. He played better in the second half, doing more work inside the three-point line, where he settled too often in the first two quarters. That can probably be traced to his gimpy knee, which definitely hindered his ability to fight for deep post position and then run back to defend the paint. There are no easy fixes at this point for Embiid, though his second straight injury-clouded playoff run should make Philly reconsider how to use him in the regular season.
The silver linings for the Sixers? The starting lineup easily won in the minutes they played together, even with Embiid’s inefficient night and J.J. Redick’s overall ineffectiveness, and they played with good pace. It’s also going to be really difficult for Philly to recreate its poor shooting performance from the outside again. Hope is not lost for the Sixers. [si.com]
The theme of our last two entries in this slightly-longer-than-usual What They're Saying concern the team's chemistry and what that might mean going forward.
When the Philadelphia 76ers determined this would be the season that they’d toss aside the patience of The Process and take whatever risks were necessary to expedite their championship pursuits, they swapped the joy of exceeding expectations for the need to — perhaps prematurely — meet outsized ones.
The 76ers entered this postseason with the greatest boom-or-bust potential of any of the so-called contenders. All of the reasons they could go belly-up before fulfilling the stated goal of both managing partner Josh Harris and general manager Elton Brand for a “deep playoff run” were exposed during Saturday’s Game 1 loss to the Brooklyn Nets that felt compounded afterward, given the pressure surrounding this potentially combustible bunch.
Joel Embiid’s health. Ben Simmons’ offensive limitations. Non-existent chemistry and cohesion. Tobias Harris’ lack of big-game experience. Limited depth. A leaky defense. Unaligned personal agendas. More could be added to the list of concerns, but these are the ones that should evoke fear for how the rest of the playoffs will go for the 76ers, even if they overcome the pesky-as-expected Nets.
“I’m telling you, we’ll be fine,” said Jimmy Butler, whose confidence and calm were evident as he paraded around the locker room, blaring country music, after the 76ers’ 111-102 loss. He scored a game-high 36 points. [theathletic.com]
How the Sixers play this postseason could have implications beyond this year as well. Three of the Sixers five starters will be free agents this summer, and that's a storyline that shouldn't be ignored.
Perhaps more than any other team, the Sixers entered the playoffs with questions about their chemistry and cohesion. Embiid and Simmons have never been the cleanest fit, and midseason trades for Butler and Harris have forced Brown to improvise as this season has unfolded. Although Philly’s hope has been that its talent-laden starting five will pull it through tense moments, nothing could have been further from the truth in Game 1.
The Nets are scrappy but eminently beatable, yet the Sixers played from behind for most of the night, rarely exploited their matchup advantages and looked like a collection of individuals rather than a team. Butler, Harris and Redick all hit free agency come July, a fact that hangs over every game and magnifies minor fissures.
Philadelphia — and especially Simmons — must respond in Game 2, or a team with NBA finals aspirations will be facing a breaking point. [washingtonpost.com]
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