NEW ORLEANS — The 76ers are falling apart. There’s no other way to describe the string of bad health affecting a team that, a couple of weeks ago, was the talk of the NBA.
Joel Embiid, the Sixers’ franchise player, was a late scratch from Sunday night’s 131-124 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans with back tightness. And T.J. McConnell sat on the bench in street clothes at Smoothie King Center with a sprained AC joint in his left shoulder. Robert Covington (lower-back bruise) was also sidelined.
Meanwhile, first overall pick Markelle Fultz (shoulder soreness) was in Lexington, Ky., for rehabilitation at the Shoulder Center at Kentucky. Justin Anderson (shin splints in left leg) also was not with the team on the three-game road trip.
But Embiid’s absence was the major topic.
Sixers coach Brett Brown said he learned only 35 minutes before tip-off that the team would be without the standout center. Brown added several times that he was unaware of the cause of Embiid’s back tightness.
However, the center revealed that he first started experiencing tightness in his back during Thursday’s setback to the Los Angeles Lakers at the Wells Fargo Center. “But I just pushed through it,” Embiid said.
He was able to remain in that game after receiving treatment. But he said his back has been pretty sore since that game. The 23-year-old has been feeling tightness since then and has been receiving massages.
“Today, I tried to go,” he said. “But I was still feeling a little tightness. So I’ve just got to keep resting for a couple of days and see how it feels day by day.
“But it’s been getting better. … I expect to play maybe on Tuesday” when the Sixers play the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Target Center. He said he’ll work out in Minneapolis on Monday and see how he feels afterward.
“So I would expect to play on Tuesday,” he said. “But you just wait and see.”
On Sunday, the Sixers (13-13) managed to keep things competitive without him against the Pelicans. They even had a 95-87 lead after three quarters. However, it was only a matter of time before the Pelicans (14-13) handed the Sixers their fourth consecutive loss.
New Orleans built a 122-114 lead after Anthony Davis’ jumper with 3 minutes, 13 seconds remaining.
Former Sixer Jrue Holiday finished with a season-high 34 points and made 5 of 8 three-pointers. And the all-star frontcourt tandem of Davis and DeMarcus Cousins also shined. Davis had 29 points, eight rebounds and a game-high five blocks from his power forward spot. Cousins, a center, added 23 points and nine rebounds. He made 7 of 10 shots.
The 131 points were the most New Orleans has scored all season. The Pelicans’ 15 three-pointers were one off their season high.
JJ Redick paced the Sixers with 28 points. Ben Simmons finished with 27 points, 10 assists, and five rebounds for his 15th double-double of the season. Dario Saric also had a double-double, with 13 points and 11 rebounds.
But the loss of Embiid was a major blow for the visitors.
“I tried to warm up earlier,” he said. “But I couldn’t. If it was the Finals, I’m sure I could have gone. But we’ve got 82 games. They don’t want me to push if I’m not 100 percent.”
He missed the 105-98 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers the previous night because he has yet to be cleared to play on consecutive nights. While the Sixers won’t say it publicly, he skipped that game because the Sixers thought Embiid would match up better against the Pelicans’ Twin Towers tandem of Cousins and Davis. The Cavaliers play with a small lineup that draws opposing centers away from the basket.
“You go straight to the opponent of big ball,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said during his pregame news conference. “You go straight to Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. It’s apples for apples now that we have Joel. It might be a little bit different when you don’t have Joel.
“We certainly need every bit of Joel tonight to legitimately find a way to win.”
The coach was unaware that he would start Amir Johnson at center for the second straight night.
Being sidelined because of ailments is nothing new for Embiid, an all-star-caliber player. A stress fracture in Embiid’s lower back kept him out of the 2014 Big 12 and NCAA tournaments during his lone season at Kansas. Embiid initially hurt his back Feb. 8, 2014, against West Virginia. He aggravated the injury a month later.
The third overall pick of the 2014 draft missed his first two seasons with the Sixers after having two surgeries on his right foot. Then Embiid played only 31 games last season because of the consecutive-games restriction and various injuries. The major injury was a torn meniscus in his left knee, which required surgery in March.
So far, he has missed five games this season. Three games were because of back-to-back situations. Embiid missed another one because of what the Sixers called “load management.” And Sunday was because of his back.
But Brown thinks what Embiid has accomplished is remarkable. He is averaging 21.5 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 2.3 blocks in 52 career games.
“I think when we all sit back and responsibly look at what his situation is that he’s moving in the direction that we want,” the coach said.
Embiid has not participated in many full practices.
“So time to time as we are moving him forward and stuff like this comes up,” Brown said, “I think it’s to be expected.”
But the fact that Furkan Korkmaz (career-high five points) played a career-high 19 minutes, 48 seconds is evidence of the Sixers’ depleted roster. Korkmaz had been inactive for most of the season and was assigned to the Delaware 87ers to get playing time. However, on Sunday, the Sixers were running first-quarter plays for the rookie.