19 Apr

76ers’ Joel Embiid salvages Play-In stinker with clutch finish, but playoff questions are already starting

If you thought Joel Embiid came into Wednesday’s Play-In game with a built-in excuse for the two months he missed to MCL surgery and rehab, think again. Through most of the first three quarters against the Heat, Embiid and the 76ers were an offensive disaster, and the Philly fans, as they will, were letting them know it.

You wondered if Tobias Harris was going to need security going home.

It was ugly, man. Ugly.

Give credit to Miami’s trademark zone defense that had the Sixers completely out of sorts, but Embiid, in particular, was pretty exposed for an inability to create any kind of offense, or even clear enough space to receive a pass in the first place, from anywhere off his preferred spots, which the Heat were taking away.

He was tired, clearly. He’d looked pretty damn good since returning from injury, averaging over 30 points in five games, but postseason basketball is a different level of intensity, and postseason basketball against the Miami Heat is its own kind of beast. Embiid’s conditioning, understandably, wasn’t ready for what the Heat were throwing at him.

But that excuse wasn’t going to fly as Embiid faded more and more into the background of increasingly stagnated possessions. His history of playoff shortcomings has created short patience for any more big-stage duds, and he was well on his way to one of his worst yet.

Through three quarters, Embiid had made a grand total of three shots. No high-post orchestration. No face-up jumpers. No two-man actions. No bully post-ups. On the rare occasion that he did have control of the ball, he was indecisive and slow to make any sort of move. It removed all tempo from the Philly half-court offense that Nick Nurse spent all season speeding up.

And then it all flipped.

Starting when Caleb Martin front-rimmed a second free throw, which rewarded the suddenly raucous crowd with free chicken, at the midway point of the third quarter, the Sixers turned into a different team. Nic Batum went nuclear with five of his six 3-pointers in the second half. The half-court assertion and tempo returned.

It all culminated with Embiid, who buried a couple of 3s and scored 11 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter, either scoring or assisting on 10 straight points for the Sixers with under three minutes to play to send them into the playoffs to face the Knicks.

The sequence that won the Sixers the game:

1) Jaquez swipes down on Embiid, gives the Sixers free throws
2) Lowry poke-around steal, Batum saves the ball, Embiid 3 in transition
3) Embiid circus shot and-one off the O board
4) Embiid doubled, finds Oubre for another and-one pic.twitter.com/uk8o2d4INT

— Daniel Olinger (@dan_olinger) April 18, 2024
And just like that, Embiid was a hero again. And believe me, it was not headed that way. Again, given the fact that Embiid’s production has declined precipitously in the playoffs (let’s be fair, he has never stayed healthy) so far in his career, had that game had kept going the way it was, the big man was not going to wake up to much sports-talk sympathy in the morning. Not in Philadelphia.

But he bailed himself and the Sixers out and now he gets a fresh run at a new playoff chapter in what will surely be a fistfight of a first-round series with the Knicks. The good news for Embiid is he has a few days for recovery, and with this first postseason game in the can, hopefully his conditioning will be better come Game 1 on Saturday.

Also, the Knicks aren’t going to pose the same problems that Miami did for Embiid. The Knicks are a tough defensive team that plays hard, don’t get me wrong, but they are not a zone team and Embiid should have more opportunities to operate from his preferred spots as Philly hopefully rediscovers some offensive flow.

For Embiid’s sake, let’s at least hope that’s the case. Because even though the Sixers pulled this one out on Wednesday, his performance, or lack thereof, through three quarters laid some pretty skeptical seeds. The benefit of the doubt is not something Embiid is going to enjoy considering how dominant of a regular-season player he’s been. It’s time for that domination to translate to the playoffs. He bailed himself out of trouble at the last minute against Miami, but an even hotter brand of heat will be on him starting Saturday.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *