MIAMI — Within an hour of arriving in Miami on Wednesday, the 76ers were on a practice court and Joel Embiid was with them for a second consecutive day. But his return to playing is still unknown as he was officially listed as doubtful for Game 3.
Doubtful does not inspire confidence or probability, but it is definitely an upgrade from being listed as out.
Embiid took part in what coach Brett Brown called “light practicing” with a “little bit of contact” on Tuesday in Camden and again in Miami on the eve of the third game in the first-round playoff series against the Miami Heat. The series is tied at a game apiece.
The center has been sidelined for the last 10 games after suffering an orbital bone fracture near his left eye on March 28.
“I’m not really saying anything,” Brown said when asked if he was optimistic about Embiid possibly returning for Game 3. “I am completely neutral. We’ll coach and plan and think like that until somebody tells me otherwise.”
Doubtful in the NBA is defined as having a 25 percent chance of playing, but as we’ve seen before with Embiid, anything can happen. On Jan. 3, with a sprained right hand, Embiid went from being doubtful to very doubtful to out, and then flipped the script, playing that night against the San Antonio Spurs.
The Sixers will have a morning shootaround on Thursday, giving them another chance to evaluate Embiid before the game.
Having Embiid on the court with the team the last two days changed the tone of the workout. One after another, the players said that just having Embiid going through practice was a boost.
“It was really good just to see Jo out there running in the offense and schemes and everything,” Robert Covington said Wednesday. “His spirits are up just to be out there with us. Everyone is just really happy that he’s back, and now we’ve got to incorporate him into what we’ve been doing.”
What the Sixers have been doing is playing at an increased pace since Embiid’s injury, and there’s no doubt that his return will slow things down a bit, but Brown seemed confident that Embiid would return to form faster than most because he is in such good shape and can pick things up with ease.
“I think the adjustment offensively might be a little bit more noticeable than defensively initially” Brown said. “But he’s so gifted and intelligent. He really is as smart and an instinctive player as I’ve coached. He can look at something without doing it and then go do it.”
Let’s get physical
The Heat caught the Sixers off guard in Game 2 with their increased physicality and defensive pressure, but that’s what the Sixers should have been expecting from a team that has a wealth of playoff experience.
“There isn’t one thing that went on the other night that we didn’t sort of anticipate,” Brown said. “Words are cheap, actions are real, and my players experienced action. They experienced what we guessed was going to be their response.”
Miami’s response to the Sixers in Game 2 included applying pressure to Ben Simmons as far out as possible in an attempt to limit his penetration and ability to distribute. Brown said the way to combat that pressure is with speed, spacing, and having shooters ready to fire.
Battling the physical nature of the game is a little bit more nuanced.
“It doesn’t have to be macho vs. macho,” Brown said. “We want to have an intellectual response to physicality … a simple jab-step and putting your arm in someone’s chest and throwing out a lead hand as an example, stuff you’d learn in eighth grade. But it all equals fundamentals, poise, technique, that stuff, to combat physicality.”
Covington echoed his coach’s sentiment, saying that it’s important not to get caught up in the physical nature of the game, instead saying that the most important thing is to play smart.
“It’s very hard, but going out there you’ve just got to match it,” he said. “You don’t want to do anything that will put yourself in a predicament or your teammates, you don’t want someone to get hurt. Nobody wants to get fined, nobody wants to be on the back end of something like that.”
The unwritten sportsmanship rule of basketball is that if a team has a sizable lead in the waning seconds of a game, that team will run out the clock to either finish the game or take a team turnover instead of increasing the score.
When a player chooses to score in that situation, the reaction from the opposing side is almost always negative, as you may remember from March 1 when Dario Saric dunked a ball with just seconds left in a 108-97 win in Cleveland.
Heat guard Goran Dragic violated that unwritten rule with just 1.2 seconds remaining in Game 2. He drove from one end of the floor to the other and for an uncontested layup, despite Miami’s eight-point lead.
Some of the Sixers were not pleased.
“It definitely matters because you could just dribble it out,” Covington said. “I don’t understand why he did it, but overall you just say ‘OK’ because obviously he didn’t care about the score of the game.”
“The first game we were down 30 and they were still running ATOs with seven seconds left in the game,” Dragic added, referring to the Sixers’ after-time-out sets. “It’s the playoffs. I’m doing everything it takes.”
Simmons had a different reaction to the situation.
“I would have dunked it,” the Sixers rookie said. “The game’s not over. I would have dunked it.”