CHARLOTTE – The 76ers had arguably the best month of any NBA team in March.
They posted a league-best 13-3 record for the month. No other team averaged 30 assists for the month. And the Sixers held opponents to a league-low 42.4 field-goal percentage. The list of impressive accomplishments is a long one.
However, the team must prove that it can continue to produce at an elite level now that Joel Embiid is sidelined with concussion and a fractured orbital bone near his left eye.
The all-star center suffered the injury in Wednesday night’s game against the Denver Nuggets. He underwent surgery on Saturday. Embiid is expected to be sidelined two to four weeks.
The Sixers' first game without him during this stretch was Friday night’s 101-91 victory over the Atlanta Hawks at Phillips Arena. Before coasting, the Eastern Conference’s fourth-place Sixers had a commanding 28-point fourth-quarter lead. But that contest wasn’t a true test.
The tanking Hawks (21-55) are the conference’s worst team and were without six players. The Sixers (45-30) might have still beaten them without Ben Simmons and possibly JJ Redick on Friday night.
The Sixers will get a better test against the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday at the Spectrum Center. But they should win the majority of their remaining seven regular-season games. Three of those contests are against teams – Hawks (second worst), Dallas Mavericks (23-53, fifth) and the Brooklyn Nets (24-51, seventh) – that were among the league’s seven worst squads heading in Saturday’s games. The Hornets (34-42) and Detroit Pistons (35-40) – two more upcoming opponents – also have losing records.
This leaves the Cleveland Cavaliers (46-40) and Milwaukee Bucks (41-35) as the Sixers’ only remaining opponents with winning records.
The Sixers will say only that there is no timetable for Embiid’s return. However, the recovery time for that injury is two to four weeks. ESPN is reporting that a two-week return is likely, depending on how Embiid copes with the pain. That would make him available for the opening round of the playoffs, which is set to begin on April 14.
The Sixers could have problems winning an opening-round series if Embiid is unable to go.
Friday’s matchup marked just their fourth victory in the 12 games he has missed this season. That result has a lot to do with this: The Sixers have outscored their opponents by 11.6 points per possession when the center plays. They have been outscored by 3.9 points when he doesn’t play.
The Sixers are a half-game behind the third-place Cavs in the conference standings. They’re also a half-game ahead of the fifth-place Pacers.
The Sixers will have the home-court advantage over the Pacers (45-31) in an opening-round playoffs series if the standings remain the same.
Even with home-court advantage, that would be a difficult pairing without Embiid. The Pacers were tough to beat in the regular season when Embiid played. Indiana won the season series, two games to one, and that was when Embiid and Indiana center Myles Turner neutralized one another.
Without him, the Sixers don’t have anyone who is able to successfully match up with the mobile center. As a result, he would draw extra attention, making things easier for all-star shooting guard Victor Oladipo.
“Defense is my biggest area of concern,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. Embiid’s “presence defensively cannot be dismissed, and so everything’s got to be perfect or as perfect as we can be defensively.”
Brown had said that the Sixers would be more of three-point shooting team while Embiid is sidelined. Aside from going 6 for 9 on threes in the third quarter on Friday, the coach’s squad struggled mightily from deep.
They ended up going 8 for 38 (21.1 percent) for the game. In the first half the Sixers were 2 for 19 (10.5 percent).
So just chucking up three-pointers for the sake of shooting them doesn’t always work. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Marco Belinelli know open three-point attempts are going to be hard to come by while Embiid is sidelined.
“We all talk about how much we need Joel from a basketball standpoint, and this is true,” Brown said.
Now we’ll see what they can do without him.