The uncertainty of Joel Embiid has the Philadelphia 76ers in trouble again
All eyes were on Joel Embiid as he retreated to the locker room with Philadelphia 76ers general manager Elton Brand between the first and second quarters of Game 4. Embiid returned to post a double-double by halftime, only to look nothing like the player who had been the Eastern Conference's most dominant force when healthy during the regular season and for the first 3 1/2 games of their series with the Atlanta Hawks.
The 7-foot MVP runner-up disappeared on the court in the second half, missing all 12 of his shots as the Hawks completed an 18-point comeback to secure a 103-100 win and tie the conference semifinals, 2-2.
It was unclear if the partial right lateral meniscus tear Embiid suffered in Philadelphia's first-round victory against the Washington Wizards was solely to blame, or more forced him to lay in pain on the sideline before Brand escorted him into the depths of State Farm Arena, and the postgame provided little clarity.
"I don't know," Sixers coach Doc Rivers told reporters in the aftermath of a blown opportunity to seize the series. "He went in the back, so I know something was bothering him, but I'm not sure what it was."
"From the beginning of the game, even before I went back to the locker room, I just felt like I didn't have it tonight," Embiid added after his worst shooting night of the season. "You could see from the beginning of the game it was tough. You could just tell, and if I'm not dominating, especially defensively, it's easy to tell."
Here's the thing, though: It wasn't so easy to tell in the first half. Embiid made four straight baskets upon returning in the second quarter — plowing through Hawks center Clint Capela and spinning into a fadeaway from the baseline for two of them — to enter halftime with 13 points and 10 rebounds. The Hawks made 10 of their 29 shot attempts in the paint through two quarters, and Embiid was a +16 in more than 18 minutes.
That flipped in the second half, when Hawks forward John Collins was a more dominant force at the rim.
"There's no excuses," Embiid said. "I've got to be better."
Only, there is an excuse. A legitimate one that has to be of serious concern to Embiid and the Sixers.
"It's already known," he said. "I don't need to explain myself anymore. I'm just trying to do the best I can."
He is, of course, referring to his right knee.
"I can do better," Embiid said. "I can always be better, but just as far as being 100%, I don't think that's gonna happen until the year is actually over, so I've just got to go out and manage it and just deal with it."
He dealt with it incredibly well through the first three games of these conference semifinals, when he averaged 35.3 points (on 53/36/81 shooting splits), 10.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 3.6 combined blocks and steals in 35.5 minutes a night, leading Philadelphia to a 2-1 series lead. He was on his way to another monster night, and the Sixers were headed for a short series before questions about his health arose again.
Never was it more evident than on Philadelphia's best chance at stealing back the victory on Monday night. Trailing 101-100 with 16.6 seconds remaining, Tobias Harris found an open Embiid rolling to the basket.
"Great look," Embiid said of a layup attempt that he normally makes with relative ease. "I just didn't have the lift. I thought I got fouled, too, but usually I would go up and — especially for a bucket like that — try to dunk it, try to get fouled and get an and-one, but I just seem to not be able to jump for obvious reasons."
Embiid has suffered through the playoffs before. An orbital fracture cost him the start of the 2018 playoffs, and the mask it required made him uncomfortable until he tossed it aside. He was also sporadically limited in the 2019 conference semifinals against the Toronto Raptors with what was termed an upper respiratory infection. There was no telling what the Sixers would get from him for the remainder of both those playoffs.
Neither of those ailments was a knee that would not improve until season's end. There are real questions about whether or not Embiid, whose dominance is predicated on force, can hold up through two playoff rounds, much less two more that only get more difficult from here. All eyes will be on Embiid in Game 5.
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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach
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