CAMDEN, N.J. — Even without Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers looked unstoppable Saturday night during Game 1 of their first-round series against the Miami Heat. Their defense was a stifling, impenetrable jumble of quick feet and long arms; their offense, brimming with whirlwind motion and long-range sniping, was explosive.
Then came Monday night and Game 2.
With Embiid still sidelined as he continues to recover from an orbital fracture he suffered in late March, the Heat upped their physicality, but not in the cliched way teams often speak about. The Sixers knew it was coming, yet they were still left with few answers as they fell 113-103, leaving the series tied heading into Thursday's Game 3 in Miami.
Just like that, the home-court advantage they worked so hard to secure was lost.
"They probably feel they have a blueprint to beat us," Sixers guard JJ Redick said Tuesday.
And so after reeling off eight straight wins without Embiid to end the regular season and then running the Heat off the floor in Game 1 with an 18-of-28 downpour from deep, the Sixers suddenly appear vulnerable and in desperate need of their missing star.
The question is: When will he return?
After sitting out Game 2, Embiid took to Instagram to air his frustration, writing, "F--king sick and tired of being babied" in a now-deleted post. Later on, he clarified his thoughts to ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne.
"I promised the city the playoffs and I'm not on the court, and I may not be on Thursday either," Embiid said. "I wish more than anything that I was out there. I just want the green light to play."
It seems as though that may not come until Saturday's Game 4 at the earliest, as the team announced Wednesday that Embiid is doubtful for Thursday's Game 3.
Asked how heavy Embiid's workload was during Tuesday's practice, Brown said Wednesday: "He did a little bit of contact ... got up and down, scripted some plays, but not much more than that."
If Embiid does indeed remain sidelined for Game 3, he seems likely to return in time for Game 4. And even if Philadelphia falls behind in the series, and Embiid is sluggish upon his return, his presence alone should be enough for the Sixers to counter the adjustments Miami rode to a surprising Game 2 win.
For one, there's the basic math of it. The Sixers reeled off eight straight wins without Embiid to close out the regular season, but six of those were over lottery teams. With Embiid on the floor this season, Philadelphia scored an additional 7.6 points per 100 possessions while allowing 4.3 fewer points compared to when he was on the bench.
They played like a 68-win team with him, according to Cleaning the Glass, compared to just a 38-win team without him. That's how dominant he is.
There's also, as mentioned by Redick, the blueprint from which Miami built its Game 2 win.
That started with Dwayne Wade's throwback performance, a showing we're unlikely to see again. That's not meant as a knock on Wade's prowess or legend but rather a nod to simple math.
Wade drilled six of the seven long two-pointers he took in Game 2. While he built his career on that type of shot, he only shot 32.9 percent on pull-up twos during the regular season.
The odds aren't in favor of him carrying Miami to three more victories by draining contested jumpers. That's bad news for the Heat, considering how much more difficult it will be for them to generate offense whenever Embiid returns to his station in front of the rim.
And yet it's the other end of the floor where Embiid's presence should benefit the Sixers most.
The Heat's Game 2 defensive scheme was brilliant, but also relatively simple. They recognized what the Sixers' offense is predicated on, especially without their main man in the middle.
Philadelphia led the league this year in ball movement—no team averaged more passes—and was fifth in terms of distance traveled on offense. With Markelle Fultz, one of their few off-the-bounce creators, still working his way back from a shoulder injury that cost him 68 games, Ben Simmons is the lone Sixers player capable of generating looks for himself and others until Embiid returns. Pinging the ball around and sending snipers like Redick and Marco Belinelli sprinting around a barrage of screens is the perfect counter to this limitation.
That strategy largely depends on Simmons being offered clear lanes to deliver passes to his shooters. Defenders typically sag off of him, which allows him to stand tall like a quarterback in the pocket. While he did just that in Game 1, Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra made an adjustment to rob him of that ability in Game 2.
"We watched tape [of] Game 1; they basically had James Johnson or Justise Winslow in the paint on every play, backed up," Redick said Tuesday. "This time, they were physical with him. He adjusted and played a fabulous game. I think initially we just got out a little bit of a rhythm in the second quarter. We just weren't in anything offensively."
Heat wings such as Josh Richardson, who swatted three shots, also made a point of keeping their bodies glued to the Sixers' shooters. Simmons being swarmed also alleviated the threat of backdoor cuts.
Embiid could solve most of those problems.
As Brown said Tuesday: "They sped up Ben, we learned and saw a different look on Ben Simmons tonight, and in those moments when there are struggles and you speed [Ben] up, that's when you want to post Joel Embiid and settle the gym." The nine post points per game that Embiid averaged this season were a league-high.
And here's the thing: Even after catching the young Sixers off guard with this brand of defense, the Heat still had to fight and claw to hold on to their lead. That Philadelphia drilled just six of its 25 open three-point looks, per NBA.com, should worry them, too.
Of course, basketball isn't played on a computer, especially in the postseason, when the series are shorter and guile and other intangibles can wind up making the difference, especially against a green team like the Sixers. But if you're the betting sort, counting on a repeat of Miami's Game 2 performance would be foolish. That's the case even if Embiid doesn't return. If he does, Spoelstra and Wade will need to conjure up three more miraculous performance just to have a chance.
All stats via NBA.com unless otherwise noted.