Joel Embiid has been pleased, and expressed those feelings, about how the 76ers have played without him. But the all-star center is pretty pumped about making his postseason debut — whenever that might be.
The center will watch Game 1 of the Sixers’ opening-round playoff series against the Miami Heat at Wells Fargo Center from the bench Saturday night. It will be the ninth consecutive game he has missed since fracturing the orbital bone near his left eye and suffering a concussion March 28 against the New York Knicks.
Embiid said that he’s feeling better than expected. The normal timeline for this injury is two to four weeks. Saturday marks exactly two weeks since his March 31 surgery. He participated in Friday’s individualized, non-contact portion of practice. The hope is for him to return sometime during the series against the Heat.
And he’s really looking forward to it.
“I’ve heard a lot of guys tell me that the intensity is different,” Embiid said Wednesday about playoff action.
He’s also excited about playing in prime time under the bright lights of a sold-out arena and a national television audience.
“I feel like that’s where I shine the most, being under the bright lights,” he said. “So I feel like it’s all set up for me for my success and the success for the team.”
Embiid is indeed a big-game player, one who excels on the national stage. But that’s not to say he has opposite results in other situations. Other than a handful of games, he’s been the best player on the court. As a result, the NBA’s best post player is a strong candidate to be the defensive player of the year and make an all-NBA team.
He averaged 22.9 points, 10.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.76 blocks in 63 games this season. He and Milwaukee Bucks all-star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo were the league’s only players to average 20 points, 10 rebounds and 3 assists in a minimum of 50 games played.
— Keith Pompey (@PompeyOnSixers) April 13, 2018
Embiid’s presence made the Sixers a better defensive team. He finished sixth in the league with a 99.7 defensive rating.
So it’s obvious that the Sixers will miss him Saturday night against the Heat because even with Embiid on the court, the Sixers had few answers for Hassan Whiteside in the teams’ last meeting back on March 8. The Miami center scored 26 points on 9-for-12 shooting in the Heat’s 108-99 victory. He also finished with eight rebounds and two blocked shots while holding Embiid to 17 points, on 5-for-18 shooting, and seven rebounds.
Whiteside dominated from the start, making his first four shots. His fourth basket gave the Heat a 14-7 cushion with 8 minutes, 6 seconds left in the first quarter. Whiteside went on to score nine of his points in the first quarter. Amir Johnson, who will start in Embiid’s place, and Richaun Holmes will try to stop Whiteside.
However, the Sixers will tell you that they’re an improved team since they last played Miami. The Sixers have gone 17-1 since that loss, with an NBA-record 16 straight wins to conclude the season. Winning its last eight games without Embiid boosted the confidence of a team that had lost eight of 11 games earlier this season without its franchise player.
The team has featured a more balanced attack during Embiid’s recent absence. Point guard Ben Simmons is playing at an all-NBA level, shooting guard JJ Redick has been the team’s vocal leader and go-to guy and the return of No. 1 overall draft pick Markelle Fultz and the signings of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova have elevated the Sixers’ bench.
The Sixers sustained their up-tempo style of play longer and relied more on three-pointers in the last eight games without Embiid. As a result, he hasn’t felt a need to rush back before he’s ready to play.
“I know that they are going to go out there and play,” Embiid said. “Every time we step out on the court, we are the favorites. So I know that’s kind of buying time for me. Make sure I’m all the way 100 percent. I give them a lot of credit.”
Make no mistake, though. The Sixers will need Embiid’s presence to advance far in the postseason. The playoffs are more of a half-court game. Teams will try to take away the Sixers’ fast-break opportunities.
Look for opponents to try to run sharpshooters Redick and Belinelli off the three-point line. They also will try to force Simmons and Fultz to shoot more from the outside. That’s where Embiid’s presence on the low block will come in handy.
At 7-foot-2 and 280 pounds, he’s tough to handle one-on-one. So drawing a defender to stop him will open up things for his teammates. Embiid also has a knack for putting opposing players in foul trouble. And you can’t discount the spark he provides for the team and the Wells Fargo Center crowd.
Right now, the Sixers don’t really know what to expect Saturday, as only four of their regular-rotation players — Redick, Johnson, Belinelli and Ilyasova — have playoff experience.
“It’s ready, fire, aim,” Brown said. “You move forward and you figure it out. We have another bullet coming in Joel Embiid. We don’t know when that’s going to happen; how it’s going to fit in when [everything comes together].”
— Keith Pompey (@PompeyOnSixers) April 14, 2018
Right now, Embiid is working hard to get back on the court. Game 2 will be at 8 p.m. Monday in South Philly. Game 3 is set for 7 p.m. Thursday at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami. The fourth game will be April 21 at 2:30 p.m. at AmericanAirlines. If needed, Games 5 and 7 will be in Philly and Game 6 will be in Miami.
“Our goal is to go to the Finals,” Embiid said. “I think we got a lot of talent, and we know we have a chance. We got to keeping working.”
The hope is he’ll do some in-game work with his teammates in the coming games against the Heat.