Not to minimize the Philadelphia 76ers’ accomplishment Wednesday night — advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals by beating the Washington Wizards 129-112 in the teams’ first-round series — but the more pressing issue at this point is: Is it sustainable?
And then the companion question: Will it need to be?
Beating the eighth-seeded Wizards without center Joel Embiid required solid performances up and down the Philadelphia lineup. But it wasn’t the sort of heavy lifting the Sixers will need to do next against the Atlanta Hawks, who advanced by beating New York in five games. Not to mention against whom, for however many more games, if they try to go forward in the 2021 postseason with a gimpy Embiid or, ugh, without him altogether.
Embiid, the Sixers’ Most Valuable Player and a finalist for Kia MVP honors, watched Game 5 from the side with what has been termed a “small lateral meniscus tear” in his right knee. That injury — the result of Embiid’s awkward landing in the first quarter of Game 4 — will be managed with physical therapy and treatment, the team announced, with Embiid considered “day to day.”
The Sixers think they will get Embiid back at some point. Coach Doc Rivers certainly hopes they get him back. But if they don’t, or day-to-day morphs into week-to-week, Philadelphia hopes it can replicate not just its style of play in the clincher but its result.
There was no quibbling with this one. The Sixers shot 51.2%. They got to the line 43 times and outscored the Wizards by eight points there. They had the edge in rebounds (40-38), points in the paint (52-38), fast-break points (16-9) and bench scoring (40-19).
They did it by primarily going small, starting a lineup with 6-foot-10 Ben Simmons — normally the team’s point guard — in Embiid’s spot and surrounding him with forward Tobias Harris and guards Danny Green, Seth Curry and Matisse Thybulle.
So Curry scored 30 points, Harris had 28 and Simmons posted a triple-double (19 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists). Rivers said he flipped through a bunch of possible starting lineups in his head in the 10 hours before tipoff, but Simmons apparently had it figured out before he and his teammates took their pre-game naps.
Engaged in a little “Call of Duty: War Zone” with Curry, Simmons reportedly told the sharpshooting guard what was about to happen. Said Curry afterward: “He told me, ‘I need 30 from you and I’m gonna get a triple-double, so we can go close it out.’ ”
Rivers was gratified by how swiftly the Sixers adapted not just to losing Embiid but to adjusting their style, expectations and workloads.
“From one day of really changing — going small, installing our new sprint stuff that we were running — for us to execute that well, it just showed how focused they were,” Rivers said. “We didn’t have a lot of time to work on a lot of stuff. But they did it.
“Our job was to make sure everybody was in the right place. Make sure we spaced well. If we were going to go small, we had a no-paint rule. Like in transition, the paint as far as running without the ball was like an electric fence. You had to run behind the three.
“My concern going small was transition. Because we had no rim protection. And in the second half they had zero transition points. … That tells you how locked in everybody was.”
Said Curry, who averaged 12.3 points in the series’ first four games: “You can’t play as much 1-on-1, iso ball. You have to play with a faster tempo offensively in the halfcourt. Ben sets the tone with the way he pushed the ball and gets into our offense. Everybody’s got to be a little more aggressive and make plays. When Joel is out there, we’ve always got that safety net – we can throw it to him and we know we’re going to get a good shot.
“Without him, you have to keep running multiple actions, play with good pace in the halfcourt. We know we’ve got enough without Joel to win a few games.”
Well there it is. Curry smiled as he said “a few,” but for Philadelphia to get where it wants to go, “few” is going to have to be four. Or eight. Or 12. The Sixers probably will have Embiid in some capacity for at least one more: the game in which he returns to test this “small lateral meniscus tear.” If he plays a lot and gets close to his regular-season form – 28.5 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 51.3% shooting – they’ll rise or fall as their best selves.
Anything less, and they’ll try to draw on their experience from the season, when Embiid played in 51 of the 72 games.
The initial breakdown isn’t inspiring: Philadelphia was 39-12 when Embiid played, 10-11 when he sat. But that includes a 1-5 mark in the first half dozen he missed. There was a stretch later – a month’s worth of games from March 11 through April 4 – when the Sixers went 8-4 without him and 10-4 overall in that run.
They did over repeated games what they were forced to resort to Wednesday, and they got more comfortable with it. That’s where things stand now: Every game Philadelphia has to play without Embiid moves it along its reluctant learning curve.
Then again, every game it moves along that curve is another game without Embiid, period.
Harris was asked if their elimination game against Washington was a sign that his team can keep winning in the playoffs without the big man. He scoffed a bit.
“Yeah, for sure. we won the game, right? I think that’s more than a sign,” Harris said.
“Obviously we want him to get healthy and be with the group when he’s ready. But we know as a team it’s the playoffs. Nobody’s gonna wait for us. Whether he’s out there or not, we still have to be ready. That’s just the nature of the beast.”
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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