NBA playoffs: Joel Embiid leaves with knee soreness, Sixers lose Game 4 to Wizards

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3 observations after Embiid exits with knee soreness, Sixers drop Game 4 originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Wizards have earned a trip back to Philadelphia.

They extended their season Monday night, avoiding a first-round series sweep with a 122-114 win over the Sixers in Game 4.

Joel Embiid was ruled out at halftime with right knee soreness, and the Sixers couldn't overcome his absence and a deficit as large as 14 points.

Bradley Beal scored 27 points on 9-for-23 shooting. Russell Westbrook recorded a second consecutive triple-double with 19 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists. 

Game 5 will be Wednesday night at Wells Fargo Center in front of a full-capacity crowd. 

Here are three observations on the Sixers' loss: 

Sixers sorely miss their MVP finalist 

Daniel Gafford started for the first time this series but didn’t stay on the floor for long, being whistled for two quick fouls. Alex Len then checked in and wasted little time picking up two fouls of his own. 

Unfortunately for the Sixers, Embiid could not finish the first quarter. He fell hard looking to score on Robin Lopez. The 27-year-old grimaced after the play but stayed in the game, playing all but the final 36.5 seconds of the first quarter. 

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Embiid stayed in the locker room for the entire second quarter and was officially ruled out during the intermission. Dwight Howard and Mike Scott took his minutes for the rest of the first half.

Washington’s Davis Bertans left in the third period with right calf soreness after scoring 15 points. 

Lopez was very efficient Monday night. His unusual, not especially fast or fluid hook shot was falling, and he posted 16 points on 8-for-11 shooting. 

The Sixers’ championship ambitions depend on Embiid’s health. It’s an obvious point, but nevertheless one worth stating in light of this injury and how great he’d been over the series’ first three games when he averaged 29.3 points on 67.4 percent shooting from the floor.

Howard and Scott aren’t a stellar center tandem. Howard generally needs to have a prodigious rebounding output to make a positive impact, and his minutes with Ben Simmons have consistently been problematic. Scott was not part of the Sixers’ playoff rotation until Embiid’s injury. 

Scott and Howard combined for one point and six rebounds in 31 minutes. 

In these situations, one is reminded of how much better Embiid makes the Sixers’ defense. He cleans up mistakes, deters drivers and slides his feet on the perimeter at a far higher level than either Scott or Howard. It’s nearly impossible to overstate how dramatic the drop-off is. 

Neither Howard nor Scott played at center in the closing minutes, a good decision by Sixers head coach Doc Rivers. When he's not dealing with foul trouble, Simmons might be the Sixers' best bet at the five down the line should Embiid remain sidelined.

Foul trouble slows down Simmons 

Simmons scored two early transition baskets and pushed the tempo effectively to begin the game, helping the Sixers grab a 16-5 lead. 

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Foul trouble halted his momentum. He was called for his third foul with 4:57 left in the second period and his fourth just 12 seconds into the third. 

The game was tightly officiating and that favored the Wizards once Embiid, the NBA’s leader in free throw attempts per game, had exited. Neither Howard nor Simmons could impose their physicality without being penalized for what the officials deemed to be excessive aggression. 

Rivers was incredulous when Simmons picked up his fifth foul with 9:20 remaining in the game. He substituted Simmons out for Tobias Harris.

Though Harris scored a team-high 21 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, he shot 8 for 24 from the floor. He made a couple of nice cuts in the first quarter before the game went haywire for the Sixers but missed the resulting layup attempts. The mismatches and space that Simmons and Embiid tend to create for Harris weren’t as regularly available Monday. 

Simmons played 25 minutes and had 13 points and 12 rebounds.

Washington head coach Scott Brooks had his team intentionally foul Simmons several times late in the fourth. Simmons, who'd been 0 for 9 in the series from the foul line entering Game 4, was 5 for 11 Monday. Beyond this single loss, his free throw shooting is clearly a concern.

Bench in the spotlight 

Shake Milton and Tyrese Maxey shared the floor late in the first quarter. One reason for playing Milton might have been the defensive matchup against Westbrook, who missed his first seven field goals and had no success Monday against Milton. Westbrook was 0 for 6 on opening night of this season when defended by Milton. 

George Hill also played solid defense on Westbrook and provided 14 points, including three timely three-pointers. However, Westbrook’s driving, passing, rebounding and renowned intensity changed the complexion of the game after Embiid’s injury. 

His first field goal was a put-back dunk that tied the game at 56-all, and a fast-break Rui Hachimura dunk off of a Westbrook dish gave the Wizards the lead. 

The Sixers’ bench had quite a few rough sequences in the second quarter. Too many of their possessions appeared aimless or lacked movement once the initial action didn’t produce a good shot. Maxey bailed them out on one of those occasions with a long three as the shot clock expired. 

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Transition defense was again an influential issue, with Westbrook and other Wizards ball handlers attacking frequently off of live-ball turnovers and rebounds. Washington had a 21-7 advantage in fast-break points. 

Despite all the factors that seemed to be working against them, the Sixers’ second unit was feisty. Furkan Korkmaz drained a three, dropped in a runner and scored off an offensive rebound within the first three minutes of the fourth quarter.

Maxey (15 points) continued to give the impression that he’s deserving of important minutes in every game. He pulled off a tremendous sequence in the fourth when he made a three to cut the Wizards’ lead to 103-102, then hung with Westbrook and blocked his shot. 

The Sixers were outplayed in the clutch, though, as the Wizards wasn't discouraged by the Sixers' run and obviously knew they had their best shot of the series to win with Embiid out.