The best that Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers could offer Saturday about Joel Embiid’s possible availability for the Eastern Conference semifinal series against Miami was a two-word answer.
“There’s hope,” Rivers said.
For now, Philadelphia will cling to that.
The 76ers and Heat both hit the practice floor Saturday to begin the process of adjusting for a playoff series that won’t have Embiid at the start — at minimum. Embiid, the NBA’s scoring champion and an MVP finalist this season, has a right orbital fracture and a mild concussion, injuries that were suffered Thursday in a first-round series-clincher at Toronto and were announced Friday night.
Game 1 is Monday in Miami. And the 76ers will be without their center who averaged 30 points per game this season.
“I don’t know how you make up for it, but you figure out how to,” Rivers said. “Yeah, I mean, it’s just a tough injury. The good news, I guess, is he’s had it before. The bad news is there’s just no timeline for when he’s coming back.”
The Heat went from 4.5-point favorites in Game 1 to 8.5-point favorites, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, after the 76ers announced Embiid’s latest injuries. But there were no outward signs of celebration in Miami on Saturday because of Embiid’s absence.
Quite the contrary, actually.
“I feel bad for my guy,” said Miami’s Jimmy Butler, who played with Embiid in Philadelphia. “Obviously, one of my former teammates. Arguably, the MVP of this league. And I think I speak for everybody that’s a part of this team — we want Jo to play. We want to go up against them at full strength and prove that we can hang with anybody and we can beat anybody. It’s a mishap. I hope he recovers well, and gets back very, very soon.”
Losing Embiid would be difficult enough for the 76ers under any circumstances. The fact that it happened with a 29-point lead and 3:58 left in a game that had essentially been decided only makes it worse.
Rivers bristled at criticism of why he had Embiid in the game at that point. Philadelphia’s lead was never smaller than 18 in the fourth quarter on Thursday, was still 25 with 5 minutes to play and had reached 29 on back-to-back baskets by Tobias Harris and Embiid.
Rivers said the Raptors still had their starters in, and that he was about to call time to sub out his starters when the lead reached 29. He also said that in one-sided closeout games, that would be about the time where benches get cleared.
“Not upset that he was in,” Rivers said. “You can make that a big deal if you want. Just go and look at every team, and every game, and their guys were in until about the 4:00, 3:00 mark.”
Embiid went through a similar issue — orbital fracture and concussion — in 2018 and missed 10 games, plus needed surgery because of the fracture. The 76ers have not mentioned surgery as a possibility this time around, which would seem to raise the possibility that Embiid could be back quicker than he was four years ago.
The concussion would be the first hurdle to clear, and it’s anyone’s guess when Embiid would escape those protocols anyway. If Embiid does play in this series, it would seem likely that he’d have to don a protective mask — something he did four years ago and didn’t exactly enjoy.
“Obviously, tough news to take,” Harris said. “As a group, we want him to get healthy and better. And whenever that is, we’ll be ready.”
Embiid led the 76ers with averages of 30.6 points, 11.7 rebounds and assists and 1.5 blocks per game during the regular season. And even though he’s bothered by a right thumb ligament injury that will require offseason surgery, he also averaged 26.2 points and 11.3 rebounds in the six games against the Raptors.
He’s one of three finalists for MVP, along with Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“I think it’ll change all of our roles, honestly,” said 76ers center DeAndre Jordan, who now seems likely to have a bigger role in the Miami series. “You can’t replace the MVP. He’s averaging 30 and whatever for the season, and he’s extremely dominant, has been during these playoffs in the first round. So it’s going to be hard to replace that. But I think that we’ll just have to pick it up by committee and everybody will be ready to go.”
Saturdays just got more interesting.