What the 76ers need right now is what life during the NBA playoffs rarely affords any team. They need time.
By closing out their first-round series against the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, they bought a little of it. They can breathe for a couple of days while Boston and Milwaukee determine the identity of the next opponent, which could be revealed by Thursday.
If coach Brett Brown is feeling particularly good about how his team came out of the Miami series, he might even hold a real practice, which is something NBA teams usually avoid during the grind of the postseason. Practice would benefit the Sixers as they attempt to find their natural offensive rhythm with center Joel Embiid again.
They just won a playoff round for the first time in six years, so things aren’t exactly dire, but they aren’t perfect, either. And if the growing expectations for the Sixers are to be met — get to the conference finals, win that round, then see what happens — they will have to be a lot closer to perfect than they have been.
The Sixers have a good, balanced team, but they also have two difference-makers in Ben Simmons and Embiid. Simmons is playing at a ridiculously high level. Embiid is doing fine, but he also looks at times like a guy who just missed 10 straight games and is working his way back being comfortable. He’s also trying to do that with a mask on his face and while staring at the court through what looks like the cover of a plastic butter dish.
Some time would be nice. Some practice time, sure, but time of any kind just to adjust to the new reality. If they are to go deep, and that is really possible, they need Embiid at his best.
Unfortunately, the game doesn’t give up much time as May crowds April and the playoff road stretches out ahead like an endless highway. The games arrive and disappear like light posts along the side, with little time to absorb the previous one or prepare for the next.
So, they will have to do it on the fly. Tuesday night was a step in the right direction after two games in which Embiid struggled on offense. He was just 7 of 22 from the field after returning to the floor for the games in Miami, but came back in the clincher to score 19 points and look more settled. The rest of what he did to affect those games was obvious. He had 12 rebounds and five blocks in Game 4, and another dozen rebounds on Tuesday, but Brown knows that both ends of the floor have to be remain solid in the postseason.
“Look at what he did. There’s Joel Embiid on defense … Bill Russell. But Joel on offense hasn’t played in three weeks and isn’t used to the physicality of playing in a crowd,” Brown said. “He’s trying to do the right thing. To the young man’s credit, he blows me away with what he can do defensively. So, we’re just buying time to move him forward.”
Tuesday’s game didn’t begin as if it would move things forward for Embiid, although every day is another day removed from the injury to the orbital bone around his left eye. Embiid missed four of his first five shots, including a couple of layups, and the Sixers, still shooting poorly from the perimeter, couldn’t put any distance between them and the Heat.
That changed after halftime when the Sixers finally found their shooting range and took control with a big third quarter. It changed for Embiid as well. He found his way to the basket with nice pick-and-roll teamwork a couple of times, finishing those off with resounding dunks. He hit a little mid-range jumpers that were good for his confidence. He put the ball on the floor and took giant strides to the basket. And defensively, if he wasn’t Russell, he was close enough. The Heat were outscored 34-20 in the third quarter and that would prove enough to buy the Sixers some of that time they need.
It isn’t much, though, and it will pass quickly. Embiid will continue to work, but the next series will arrive before he can finish it all. This is a race and the finish line is a long way away. At least, that is the hope. After a game like Tuesday’s – when Embiid was more fluid than he has been and was rewarded on the scoreboard – it was easy to look down that road and see the see the end. Even with a mask.