Playoffs 2019 East Semifinals: Raptors (2) vs. 76ers (3)

Embiid, Sixers face multi-faced test in Game 6

Does Philadelphia have the mettle to force a Game 7 vs. Raptors?

* Tonight on ESPN: Game 6, Raptors vs. Sixers (8 ET)

In the Philadelphia 76ers’ two most important games of their season thus far, their best player has been far less than 100 percent. And it’s arguably more frustrating that it’s an illness, rather than a recurring knee issue, that’s the primary problem with Joel Embiid.

Embiid scored just 24 total points, with more turnovers (10) than field goals (eight) as the Sixers dropped Games 4 and 5 of their Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Toronto Raptors. The Sixers’ season is now on the line as they host Game 6, with no clear indication that they’ll have a full-strength Embiid.

“It’s not ideal,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said of Embiid’s illness.

Though Embiid and Ben Simmons are just 25 and 22 years old, respectively, the Sixers went for it this season. They traded for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, who will both have the choice to leave via free agency this summer. Their new starting lineup has been dominant, but it’s played just 19 games together and it may be their old starting lineup after Thursday because of a microorganism that found it’s way into Embiid’s body.

Game 6 will be the first in which either team is facing elimination. For the Sixers, the questions go beyond Embiid’s health. Thursday night will be a test of their cohesion, their toughness and their buy-in.

Excuses don’t go very far at this time of year, though. The Sixers knew the risks when they traded two rotation players to Minnesota for Butler and when they sent two first round picks and Landry Shamet to the Clippers for Harris. When the playoffs arrive, one player (like Kawhi Leonard) can get hot, another player (Harris) can go cold, someone (Embiid) can get sick or injured, and a regular-season star with a fatal flaw in his game (Simmons) can be neutralized.

Of course, the Sixers’ season isn’t over. It was just a couple of games ago that the Raptors looked like the more flawed team with shooters that had gone cold. The Sixers won Game 2 in Toronto with Embiid limited due to a stomach issue. The Raptors may have found themselves on Tuesday — “We have so much confidence right now,” Serge Ibaka said after Game 5 — but every game of this series has been very different from the other four.

Have the Sixers had enough time together to believe in one another with their season on the line? Are the players as all-in as the front office? The Sixers have looked fantastic when everything is clicking (see Game 3), but can they play from behind?

Brown believes they’re good in that regard.

“For a team that hasn’t been with each other that long,” he said Wednesday, “there’s a resiliency, there’s a togetherness that contradicts what the calendar says we have spent together.”

Game 5 provided an opportunity for the Sixers to show some of that resiliency. But after Toronto took the lead for good late in the first quarter, there was no response from Philadelphia.

The Sixers will be at home on Thursday and a focus will be on the first quarter to see what kind of fight they have (and whether the Raptors can weather a potential storm). There has been one constant through the five games of this series: The winner of the first quarter has won all five.

We’re going to be just fine if we can walk down and do the things we know we can do. There’s no dent to our spirit.”

Sixers coach Brett Brown

“I think we’ve got to expect a tremendous amount of energy from them from the jump,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said Wednesday. “I think that always starts with trying to get your defense set up. They’re going to want to try to get up the floor and beat your defense down the floor. Simmons is going to push, I’m sure, to try to get himself involved in the transition game.”

Our first indication of where things are going could come with the Sixers’ first few offensive possessions. Is Embiid willing to get in the paint and to the basket? If he catches the ball as a trail man, does he settle for a jump shot, would he prefer to hand off the ball to one of his teammates, or does he back Marc Gasol down to the block and go to work?

An ill Embiid is probably better than no Embiid at all. In this series, the Sixers have outscored Toronto by 40 points in his 157 minutes on the floor and have been outscored by an amazing 68 points in his 83 minutes on the bench. And his impact has come on both ends of the floor. Game 5 was the first time Embiid registered a negative plus-minus since Game 1 of the first round.

Before we get to a fascinating offseason in the Atlantic Division, we have another fascinating elimination game to play. On Wednesday, the Boston Celtics couldn’t get it together to save their season. On Thursday, the Sixers will be the team under the microscope.

“We have a prideful team,” Brown said. “We’re going to be just fine if we can walk down and do the things we know we can do. There’s no dent to our spirit. There’s no self pity, we’re excited to get back and get ready to play again.”

* * *

John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.