The Sixers played in their most pivotal game of the season on Friday, coming out on the other side with their 13th consecutive victory after a 132-130 win over the Cavaliers.
But there was something clearly missing, a huge 7-foot-2 absence that could not be overlooked.
Joel Embiid joined the Sixers for the first time since his March 31 surgery to repair a left orbital fracture but it wasn’t on the court. Dressed all in black, he was on the sideline cheering on his teammates as they withstood a second-half comeback by LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
The Sixers have been successful since Embiid’s injury, intensifying the speed of the offense and relying heavily on the team’s long-range shooters. But as Embiid watched from the bench on Friday, he served as a stark reminder that the Sixers can be even better with him, and the margin for error without him is slim.
After the Sixers’ win, Brett Brown talked about the scene in the locker room and the togetherness of the team, led by Embiid. Even when he isn’t playing, Embiid’s presence and the way the team is coming together excited Brown as much as anything else.
What a game!!!! #TheProcess
— Joel Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) April 7, 2018
For the rest of the team, one word kept coming up when asked what the Sixers could be when Embiid rejoins the them on the court.
“It would be scary. Scary,” Ben Simmons said after the game.
“It’s very scary to know we’re doing this without Jo,” Markelle Fultz said echoing Simmons.
When Robert Covington was asked if he thinks about what the team will look like in the playoffs with Embiid he had the same answer.
There’s no question that the Sixers have been playing fast and moving the ball at a quicker pace without Embiid on the floor, and that served the team well against the Cavaliers, who were on the second night of a back-to-back. But Embiid anchors the Sixers’ top-five defense and starting lineup in a way that can not be replicated without him.
To some, it may seem that the Sixers haven’t skipped a beat since Embiid’s injury. They still have a top defensive rating, are holding teams to a low number of points in the paint, are themselves scoring at a high rate in the paint, and doing it all without their biggest player.
But the last few games — with the Cavaliers the exception — have come against sub-par teams that didn’t stand much of a chance to begin with, and the Sixers’ current pace is not sustainable through the course of a seven-game series.
The game slows down in the postseason, and it’s where all-stars are on display proving their value and why they are considered the league’s elite.
Embiid’s 22 points and 11 rebounds per game are already a mountain to overcome when he isn’t on he floor. Add that to the other team trying to match up and move with a 7-2 center that can shoot a three or hit a fadeaway, or the foul problems Embiid creates for the opponent’s front court, and the Sixers are a wildly more dynamic team with him.
The Sixers have not offered a timeline on Embiid’s return, but it’s expected to be within 2-4 weeks from the date of his surgery. That window means he could possibly join the team by the start of the playoffs on April 14.
Embiid has been vocal about not wanting to miss any more games, and that was just during the regular season. His opinion and voice will likely weigh heavily after he clears the NBA’s concussion protocol.
When the time comes, the Sixers will welcome him back with open arms, ready to scare the rest of the league.