Joel Embiid’s status ping-ponged during the Sixers’ 2019 first-round playoff series against the Nets.
He checked off the doubtful, questionable and probable designations throughout the series because of left knee soreness and was ruled out less than a half hour before Game 3 began in Brooklyn. Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris combined for 60 points that evening in a Sixers win.
While the Sixers were surprised not to have Embiid available Sunday night in Cleveland — he was ruled out shortly before tip-off with back tightness — it’s not the first time his status has forced a change of plans. And, though Embiid said he dedicated himself to taking care of his body this offseason, history suggests it won’t be the last. The Sixers will need to be much better next time similar circumstances arise.
“ … It always affects you a little bit, because we assumed he was playing,” head coach Doc Rivers said after the Sixers’ 118-94 loss. “He was a late scratch — so late that we couldn’t even add the extra big. So when that happens you’ve still got to be able to play and get through it. There’s no excuses for that to affect your team.
“It’s going to happen all year with guys. Guys think they can go, we wait, we wait, and then they tell you they can’t. Joel won’t be the only one, and so somebody else has to step up. I didn’t think we stepped up today at all.”
Rivers is right that no Sixers came close to filling Embiid’s sizable void. Tobias Harris’ 16 points on 4-for-6 shooting from three-point range were a team-high. All other Sixers combined to shoot 6 for 31 from three. Ben Simmons committed six of the Sixers’ 21 turnovers as the team’s attempts to push the pace were often chaotic. Dwight Howard was limited by early foul trouble. Third-string center Tony Bradley didn’t fare well when Howard exited, prompting Rivers to turn to a frontcourt of Simmons and Mike Scott.
“We were just reaching for straws,” Rivers said. “Sometimes your team is struggling. I thought Tony really struggled in the first half, more with the concepts. At times when you’re a coach, you make a decision: Let’s see if we can change the tempo of the game by putting Mike Scott in to stretch the floor. The problem was our passing was so poor tonight that we couldn’t take advantage of it.”
No Sixer available to reporters after the game wanted to use Embiid’s absence as an excuse. Still, it's clearly suboptimal to have so little heads up that a three-time All-Star who anchors your defense and is your team’s highest-usage offensive player is out. It’s also a scenario the Sixers may very well face in a game with much higher stakes.
“It could’ve played into it,” Simmons said of whether the late scratch impacted the Sixers mentally. “But at the end of the day, he was not there and we were on the floor. He had no control. It could’ve; it may have not. But that’s on us. We’ve got to just lock in and play better, regardless of the situation.”
The 22-year-old Bradley, who said during training camp that he was learning from practicing against Embiid, didn’t have much to add regarding the issues Rivers mentioned he had with the Sixers’ concepts. These were his first regular-season minutes with the team after spending his first three professional seasons in Utah and being traded to Philadelphia in exchange for Zhaire Smith.
“Nothing’s different (compared to with the Jazz),” Bradley said. “Just got to listen better or pay more attention to the play, I guess. There’s really no difference, though.”
Harris was displeased with the Sixers’ sloppiness and lack of defensive resistance, but he didn’t think the situation with Embiid explained those problems.
“I would attribute it really to just our play out there,” Harris said. “We knew when we started the game that Joel wasn’t out there, so for us, we’ve still got to play basketball.
"We turned the ball over way too many times tonight, and on top of that we just didn’t have a real focus and energy on the defensive end. They never felt us all game, and that’s really where it starts and where it really ends right there — with us on the defensive end.”