PHILADELPHIA – About an hour before the Philadelphia 76ers tipped off Game 1 of their first round series against the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday, Sixers owner Josh Harris tried to project an air of triumph. Only there was plenty of cause for trepidation when examining his team.
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia’s force-of-nature center, was a game-time decision because of tendinitis in his left knee – the same knee that was operated on in 2017 to remove a small portion of frayed meniscus – and coming into the postseason having sat out 14 of 24 games since the All-Star break.
“It’s been a long six years for all of us, but at the end of all this we’ve assembled an enormous amount of talent and we’re really excited to be on the eve of the playoffs with a team that we think can make a deep playoff run,” Harris said.
But what exactly does a “deep run” mean? And if they don’t go deep, what does that mean for their coach, Brett Brown? And what about that collection of talent? If they don’t go as far as Harris expects, will he still dig into his pockets to keep the likes of Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick in free agency?
Embiid ended up playing, scoring 22 points on 5-for-15 shooting with 15 rebounds, 4 assists and 5 blocks. But the Sixers were outscored by 17 points in his 24 minutes, and lost 111-102. It didn’t even feel that close, as they trailed by as many as 17 and were booed off the court by the home fans who didn’t leave early — as a hoard of Philly faithful did with about three minutes to go.
Now things get interesting. Even before the No. 6-seeded Nets upset the No. 3-seeded Sixers to start things off, a Brooklyn player told ESPN before the game that he liked his team’s chances because, “All the pressure’s on them.”
Brooklyn isn’t the team that’s played less than a dozen games with its starting unit together. Brooklyn isn’t in the group widely considered the four teams with a chance to make the Finals out of the East now that LeBron James is in Los Angeles. Brooklyn isn’t the team worrying about its star’s health – heck, the Nets got 23 points out of Caris LeVert and there were doubts earlier in the season if he’d be able to contribute in 2018-19 after the nasty ankle injury he suffered in November. Brooklyn isn’t the team with a second star like Ben Simmons who plays guard in the best basketball league in the world, yet is 0-for-17 for his career from beyond the 3-point line.
“I’m fine,” Embiid said after the game, even though he admitted he did away with the brace the team fashioned for his left leg because it made his calf and tibia feel sore.
It’s tough to say the same about his team. Yes, it’s not time to write the Sixers off – as Nets coach Kenny Atkinson noted, Philly split the first two games at home in the first round against the Miami Heat in last year’s playoffs and still went on to win in five games – but this is a tricky moment for the Sixers.
Embiid is clearly not right. He started the game punishing the Nets inside – Jarrett Allen was called for two fouls in the first minute – but then drifted to the outside, going 0-for-5 from 3 and admitted that he was purposefully looking to shoot more jumpers to save wear and tear on his body.
Butler, who scored a career playoff high 36 points to go with 9 boards, 2 blocks and 2 steals, went as far as to suggest the All-Star big man consider going back to the bench to try to get healthy.
“I love Jo for going out there and competing,” Butler said. “Don’t get me wrong, the game is definitely different when he’s out there – he’s a force to be reckoned with, we all know that. We all want him to be smart. I think that we’re capable of winning (without him). I think it’s a lot easier when he’s on the floor, don’t get me wrong, but I think health is the biggest thing.”
Embiid grimaced at times in dead ball situations and he had a chance to assess how his body was feeling without adrenaline pumping or the music blaring at Wells Fargo Center. He said he was trying to get his wind back too, after sitting most of the last week and a half.
But at least for one day, Brooklyn found a formula that worked against him. He went just 1-for-8 when the Nets defended him with Ed Davis, according to data compiled by ESPN Stats & Information. And Davis added 12 points and 16 rebounds, his energy making Embiid look lethargic at times.
“I’ll point exclusively to fatigue,” Brown explained. “It’s a lot easier running 3-point line to 3-point line than it is rim to rim. … We tried to play him in 5 minute clumps and maximize that, but even that got the better of him from a pace standpoint.”
With two days between Games 1 and 2, Embiid won’t all of the 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. Ben Simmons had just 9 points and 3 assists in Game 1 and Harris and Redick both shot an identically disappointing 2-for-7.
Simmons took a shot at the fans who let them hear it in Game 1, saying, “If you are going to boo, then stay on that side. That is how I feel. If you are a Sixers fan and going to boo, stay on that side.”
Nobody wants a weak home court advantage. But there’s angst in the air in Philadelphia.
When asked to define just how far he expects his team to go this postseason, Harris tried to backtrack.
“Let’s start by beating the Nets,” he said. “But let’s move forward from there.”
Philly fans are still waiting on that start.