Joel Embiid received news this week that he has heard far too many times in the last few years. He was going to be sidelined in the playoffs.
It’s now three straight years the All-Star center has missed at least one game for the Philadelphia 76ers at the most important time of the year. So Doc Rivers spoke to Embiid on the eve of Game 4 in Brooklyn to make sure his right knee was all that was hurting.
“I mean, obviously, clearly that’s on your mind. Like, it is,” Rivers said. “But as I said, this is another obstacle in the story that we’re going to write this year and you’re going to be OK. It may take a minute, but this is just part of it.
“I’m sure, like he’s human and ‘goodness, this happens again,’” Rivers added, envisioning Embiid’s thoughts. “So let’s win, let’s get him back on the floor and let’s just keep on our own journey.”
That journey will continue into the Eastern Conference semifinals after the 76ers completed a sweep of the Brooklyn Nets with a 96-88 victory Saturday. It was the first Philadelphia’s first sweep of a best-of-seven series since 1985, providing plenty of time off before meeting either Boston or Atlanta in a series that wouldn’t start for at least a week.
“We want everybody to be healthy,” guard Tyrese Maxey said. “I think this is going to be big for us, this week. We get some rest.”
An MRI exam after Embiid had soreness and swelling following Game 3 revealed a sprain. He missed two games in the second round last year and another in the first round in 2021 with various injuries, on top of the two he missed to begin the 2018 playoffs with an orbital fracture and another in 2019, also with a knee problem.
Even if Embiid can’t return quickly, perhaps the 76ers are better prepared now to play without him.
Maxey had a strong series against the Nets and can score or distribute from his guard spot. Tobias Harris is a reliable scorer in the frontcourt, as he showed with 25 points and 12 rebounds in the clincher.
Most importantly, James Harden is much more comfortable than last season.
He had been acquired by the 76ers in February, giving him only two months to adjust to his team before the postseason, and was still recovering from a lingering hamstring injury he sustained in Brooklyn. The former MVP played well below his usual level when Philadelphia was ousted by Miami in the second round, but is confident in what the Sixers need him to do now.
“I mean, I know my role,” Harden said. “I know what Doc wants me to do.”
He shot only 4 for 18 in Game 4, but finished with 17 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. Harden, like most of his teammates, didn’t get the clean shooting looks he had earlier in the series, when the Nets were double-teaming Embiid.
So the Sixers hope the two-time scoring champion will be ready to go whenever Game 1 rolls around. That’s why Harden said the quick finish Saturday was so valuable, because getting Embiid healthy is the top priority.
“It’s helpful for us, too,” Harris said. “We need some rest.”