Can the Philadelphia 76ers Survive If Joel Embiid Isn't Right?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJune 15, 2021

ATLANTA, GA - JUNE 14: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers drives to the basket against the Atlanta Hawks during Round 2, Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Playoffs on June 14, 2021 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

No one has established a direct link between this season's condensed schedule and a rash of injuries to big-name players, but it's tough to ignore the possibility.

And, given his history and recent right knee injury, it's fair to wonder if the quick turnarounds are starting to wear on Joel Embiid, who shot 4-of-20 (including 0-of-12 in the second half) in a 103-100 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Monday.

Less than two weeks ago, Embiid was diagnosed with a "small lateral meniscus tear in his right knee." For a player who missed the entirety of his first two seasons and significant chunks of every one since, that was concerning news, but it caused him to miss just one game this postseason.

And his numbers upon return suggested he was going to be fine. In the first three games against the Hawks, Embiid averaged 35.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 2.3 blocks, 1.3 steals and 1.3 threes in 35.5 minutes. The Philadelphia 76ers had a 2-1 lead and appeared poised to advance. With home-court advantage in what is now a three-game series, maybe they still are. But a hobbled, or even slowed, Embiid changes that.

On Monday, he looked to be somewhere between those two descriptors.

Former Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough thought he was closer to the former.

"76ers are in trouble—Embiid is dragging a leg out there," he tweeted. "He can't plant and explode with any type of force."

Against the size and athleticism of Clint Capela and John Collins—both of whom often crowded Embiid's drives and post moves—any decrease in explosion could be a problem.

Those two, who combined for 26 points, 25 rebounds and two blocks, deserve plenty of credit for the MVP runner-up's poor performance. Each bodied Embiid on multiple possessions. Each withstood plenty of physical play sent their way too. By the end of the game, they had Embiid hunting foul calls as much as buckets.

After he missed every shot in the second half, it's hard to blame him.

StatMuse @statmuse

Joel Embiid shot 0-12 in the 2nd half. The Sixers were outscored by 16 points with Embiid on the court in the 2nd half. https://t.co/F1Na3qDbeu

As good as the Atlanta frontcourt was, though, it was difficult to watch the game without wondering if something wasn't quite right with Philly's superstar center. He'd torched the Hawks in the first three games of the series. He was plus-43 in those contests.

His ability to be a bully in the post is a problem for Collins. His range as a shooter tests Capela outside the paint. Both require decent health. And he may not have it.

On the Sixers' last-gasp possession in the final 16.6 seconds of the fourth quarter, he caught a pass while cutting through the lane, got to within a few feet of the rim and smoked the layup. After the game, he suggested he typically would've tried to throw that one down.

Rich Hofmann @rich_hofmann

Joel Embiid on the final shot: "I just didn't have the lift." Said that he would normally try to dunk it in that spot. On the whole second half: "There's no excuses. I got to be better."

It's all well and good for him to say he doesn't want to make excuses, but poor health is a fair one. If that's what's going on with Embiid, Philadelphia could be in trouble.

The Hawks have a balanced, varied attack led by Trae Young, who Monday became the first player since 1991 to put up at least 25 points and 18 assists in a playoff game. Collins is a good above-the-rim finisher who can also hit threes. The lob chemistry between Young and Capela is reminiscent of the latter's days with James Harden and the Houston Rockets. Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari and Kevin Huerter can all get hot from the outside.

From the time Nate McMillan took over, Atlanta was eighth in the league in points per 100 possessions.

Without Embiid's full offensive capabilities, the Sixers might struggle to keep up. They scored 10.4 fewer points per 100 when he was off the floor in the regular season.

Of course, there hasn't been a suggestion that he'll miss the next game, so that figure is merely indicative of Embiid's impact on the Philadelphia attack.

When he's right, he's one of the few players in the league who commands consistent double-teams. And when defenses collapse on him inside, there is precious extra room for shooters such as Seth Curry and Tobias Harris. When his jumper is falling, bigs have to clear the paint, which opens up some space for Ben Simmons' drives. He's the yin to the rest of the roster's yang.

After years as one of the game's most effective focal points (when he's available), Monday's second half was an usual sight. Embiid's struggles actively hurt the Sixers.

And if there are signs he's slower in Game 5, Atlanta would be wise to put him in pick-and-rolls. Make him work. Make him move in space.

If Embiid has more halves like he did Monday, Atlanta can win this series. It's young, hungry and talented. And even if Philadelphia does survive, every subsequent game will put more mileage and pressure on the injury. It may be even tougher to manage against the Brooklyn Nets or Milwaukee Bucks, who'll have some of the game's best drivers attacking Embiid.

In his career, minutes restrictions, injury management and absences have been commonplace. Surviving an entire postseason unscathed would be a bit of a surprise. That's already out the window for 2021. A tweak or aggravation of the injury, or a resurfacing of any old problem, could spell doom.

On the other hand, this is just one game. Actually, it was one half of one game. Embiid looked closer to his usual self in the first two quarters. And a performance like those he had in the first three games would put all this to rest quickly.

But this series is scheduled for every other day from here on out. And the Hawks have life and a little momentum on their side.

A healthy Embiid is clearly the best player on these two teams (and maybe even in the entire Eastern Conference). All bets are off if Monday's version is here to stay.

Which one will play in Games 5, 6 and possibly 7? There may be no way to know right now, but the answer could determine who moves on.