Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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76ers vs. Knicks: When Joel Embiid sits, it’s the same old story — but Sixers ‘can’t give up’

NEW YORK — Entering the Philadelphia 76ers‘ first-round series against the New York Knicks, the health of Joel Embiid seemed like by far the biggest variable. If the reigning MVP could play like he did toward the end of the regular season, if he could even approach the heights he reached before he had surgery on the meniscus in his left knee in February, then the seventh-seeded Sixers would have a great chance to advance, the thinking went. And if he struggled physically, like he did in the Play-In against the Miami Heat, then they would not.

It was not that simple in Saturday’s series opener at Madison Square Garden. Less than three minutes in, Embiid had all nine of Philadelphia’s points, including a corkscrew and-1 layup. Despite an injury scare — the result of Embiid channeling Tracy McGrady with an off-the-glass alley-oop to himself in the second quarter, perhaps the most spectacular play he’s ever made — he finished with 29 points on 8-for-22 shooting (11-for-12 from the line), eight rebounds, six assists and two steals in 37 minutes. The Sixers lost, though, because they were outscored by 21 points in the 11 minutes that he was not on the court.

Philadelphia played without Embiid for two months in the regular season, but it can be “a little bit” challenging to toggle between styles with and without him, forward Nicolas Batum said at the team hotel in Midtown Manhattan a day after the 111-104 loss.

“We think about it during the game now,” Batum said. “When he’s on the court, it’s great. When he’s not … we can’t give up. We still gotta find a way to be effective and can’t [go from being] up 12 and then [be] down 10 because he’s not on the court.”

Sixers coach Nick Nurse didn’t have much of an update on Embiid’s knee on Sunday. “I asked him how he was feeling,” Nurse said. “He said, ‘Pretty good.'” Even if he is able to log 40-ish minutes in Game 2 on Monday, it needs to stay steady — or at least not completely fall apart — when he goes to the bench.

“We gotta figure out ways to play when he’s off the floor,” Kyle Lowry said. “Play with some pace, play with a little bit more decisiveness. You know, he’s such a dominant force for us, and we get comfortable when he’s there. But when he’s not there, we gotta find ways to get other guys involved, get the ball moving, play with a little bit more energy and communicate a lot better.”

This is a frustratingly familiar storyline. Four years ago, without one go-to backup for Embiid, the Sixers tried Amir Johnson, Boban Marjanovic and Greg Monroe (who started Game 3 of the first round in Brooklyn) in the playoffs, and they tried centerless lineups (with Mike Scott or Ben Simmons as the nominal 5) too. Memorably, Embiid finished their second-round series against the eventual-champion Toronto Raptors plus-90 in seven games, and they were outscored by 109 points in 99 minutes with him on the bench. Philadelphia does not have that kind of hole on the second unit anymore, and there’s no controversy that resembles the DeAndre Jordan vs. Paul Reed discourse of 2022, but the problem persists.

In the regular season, Philadelphia was outscored by 0.6 points per 100 possessions with a slightly below-average offense and a slightly above-average defense without Embiid on the court, according to Cleaning The Glass. In the 43 games that he missed, the Sixers went 16-27. 

“I really hoped we would play better in those times when Joel was out,” Philadelphia president of basketball operations Daryl Morey said in an interview on The Rights To Ricky Sanchez last week. “We’re really not built for that, but you do hope you have a few more players step up.”

The Sixers may have become a more complete team at full strength after trading James Harden, but they also became less equipped to win their minutes without Embiid. “James for sure carried us in a lot of those games last year and is used to being the guy,” Morey said in the podcast appearance. “And look, yeah, we just weren’t generating clean looks for guys when Joel was out.”

In Game 1 against New York, Tyrese Maxey scored a team-high 33 points on 14-for-26 shooting and Lowry had 18 points on 5-for-9 shooting (including a 12-points-in-three-minutes flurry to open the second half), but nobody else besides Embiid thrived offensively for Philadelphia. Its bench was outscored 42-7, and starting forwards Tobias Harris and Kelly Oubre Jr. scored a combined 17 points on 6-for-14 shooting (2-for-6 from deep).

“[Harris] needs to get involved,” Nurse said. “Nico needs to get involved. Kelly needs to get involved. Buddy [Hield] needs to get involved. There’s a lot more people we need to get involved.”

One thing to watch on Monday: Philadelphia’s rotation. In the first game, Embiid was on the court for all of Lowry and Oubre’s minutes, with the exception of the two minutes and 37 seconds that he spent in the locker room after the off-the-glass dunk. Perhaps instead of tethering them to Embiid, they could be subbed out early, then be used to stabilize the second unit when he rests.

“We’ve played a ton without him, we know what our style of play is and what we need to do without him,” Nurse said. “I think that we gotta make sure, as a coaching staff — or I gotta make sure — that, when he is out, we got the right people in. And I think it applies the other way, too. I think there’s some other guys that kind of fit with him, as well. We gotta make sure those guys are in when he is in.”

On that front, it is notable that Hield played only 11 minutes in Game 1, splitting his playing time between lineups that did and didn’t feature Embiid. On The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, Morey said that, when the Sixers acquired him at the trade deadline, they hoped he’d more productive than he was in their non-Embiid minutes.

“We had done a lot of study on Buddy Hield, and I think he probably needs an edge a little more than I might have thought going in,” Morey explained. “He’s not going to like do as much as you’d want when Joel is out, let’s just be frank. We always thought his fit was there with Joel. I thought his fit without Joel was going to be a little bit better, but I think, look, the nature of his game, he’s always played off of others to get his clean looks.”

Nurse said that Hield will “be a factor in this series.” He said that Oubre was not “nearly the athlete that he needed to be last night” but understands what he has to do going forward. He said that Maxey needs to “play more physical and get involved in rebounding and get involved in the physical nature of the game.” He said that Reed “was out of position a lot” defensively and “went for a lot of blocked shots that he didn’t need to,” which led to a few of the Knicks’ 23 offensive rebounds. There is plenty of room for both individual and collective improvement.

Despite being dominated on the glass all game and having a net rating of minus-97 (not a typo) with Embiid off the court, Philadelphia still had a chance to win Game 1 down the stretch. This is a testament to Embiid, a testament to their first-shot defense and a testament to their upside if they manage to get their second unit’s act together. When Embiid takes a seat on Tuesday, the Sixers will have an opportunity to show that they’ve learned from this loss and are sick of the same old story.

“We have to be a little bit more sharp,” Lowry said. “We have to be a little bit more in tune with each other, also.”

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