Joel Embiid is back, but at what cost for the Sixers?

BOSTON — Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid told teammates, “I’m back,” after accepting the NBA Most Valuable Player award on Tuesday night, but 24 hours later the sensation is changed from edifying to disturbing during an eruption. Game 2 loss to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Two weeks after spraining the lateral collateral ligament of his right knee in the first round of the playoffs, Embiid has scored just 15 points on 9 shot attempts and added 3 rebounds, all well below half his averages. regular season, in the 121-87. loss to a Celtics side the Sixers beat without him in Monday’s opener. Embiid didn’t register an assist and committed three turnovers in 27 minutes of action.

Before the game, Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said, “I can guarantee you that if Joel plays he’s healthy” and “we’re not going to risk him for anything”, but he Was hard to tell if it was a wound or rust. played a bigger role in his lackluster night. Rivers leaned towards the latter, but his players were less sure.

“Obviously he’s not 100%, but at the end of the day he’s out there and he’s giving it his all, and that’s all we can ask for,” Sixers forward Tobias said. Harris, who recorded team highs of 16 points and 7 rebounds. .

“I was supposed to be out for 4-6 weeks or something, so I won’t be 100% or completely healed in all that time,” added Embiid, whose self-assessment means he won’t. will not be comfortable. best of this series. When he says, “I’m going to keep playing through anything. We have a great chance, and I have to take advantage of it,” it sounds admirably like a player making a title shot the priority in game-decisions. temporal.

Boston tested Embiid’s fitness from the jump. Jaylen Brown wrapped around a screen and drilled a 3-pointer on a slumped Embiid on Philadelphia’s first defensive possession. On the Celtics’ next trip to the floor, Marcus Smart drove, firing Embiid, then fired a pass to Al Horford in the left corner, forcing Embiid to defend 24 feet. He could not. Horford missed his 3, but Boston will make 20 of 51 attempts.

“I need to be more active, but over the next two days I’m going to come back to myself as much as possible,” Embiid said, bracing himself for health. “I thought protecting the rim was good, and I thought it was just the 3 and not being able to keep the ball in front of us. If you can’t keep the ball in front of you, it’s going to create rotations, and now we’re giving up the 3 wide open, and that’s how they took advantage of it.”

Embiid fell to the ground three times in the first half – once on the flop, once when Smart pulled the chair on him and once while backpedaling in defense. He only briefly checked his knee after the third fall. As he warmed up before the game, Embiid was moving enough like him to convince us he was fine. He was not.

“Obviously, even though it hurts, I’m doing my best and just focusing on playing hard and not thinking about what’s going to happen if I do this move or move this way. “, did he declare. “Sometimes you don’t get that response from your body, and sometimes you get it. When you don’t get that response from your body, you just have to adjust.”

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid defends Boston Celtics winger Jaylen Brown during the second half of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals at TD Garden on Wednesday.  (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid defends Boston Celtics winger Jaylen Brown during the second half of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals at TD Garden on Wednesday. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Horford and Grant Williams made sure Embiid felt their combined 476 pounds, battling for position every time the Sixers center looked for the ball at the high post. The Celtics didn’t feel the same strength from Embiid on the offensive side in the first 21 minutes of the game as his first three field goal attempts came from 17 feet and beyond. When Embiid managed to position himself at the post, Boston sent him to the free throw line.

“I’m not making excuses for him,” Harris said, “but the playoffs, the second round, the intensity, the physique, all of those things just keep going up, and he was really trying to feel out there and to see what seemed right to him.”

Embiid’s first-half defense was a different story. He recorded five blocks and deterred several more drives once his dismissal of a dunk attempt from Brown proved his knee wouldn’t stop him from protecting the rim.

It wasn’t until late in the second quarter that Embiid made his usual presence on offense known, finishing off a pocket pass from James Harden in traffic. Then, inside a minute before halftime, Embiid pulled Horford off the dribble down the left side and launched a monstrous dunk to draw the 76ers up 50-44.

This was the extent of its impact. The game fell apart on the Sixers in the third, when Boston’s Malcolm Brogdon made 3 of 6 3-pointers in a long-range bare-knuckle barrage. Rivers called timeout to stop the bleeding with 2:19 left in the quarter, in which an official review pulled out an Embiid bucket that failed to beat the shot clock a minute earlier. The air went out of the return of the newly crowned MVP. His night was over. Boston had an 83-60 advantage and built the entire lead over Embiid’s watch.

“Early on they realized Joel was there, and after the third or fourth blocked shot they just kept driving,” Rivers said. “The difference is they kicked him out, and we didn’t do a good job of coping.”

As the Celtics pushed their lead to 36, Philadelphia’s attention turned to Thursday, when doctors examine how Embiid’s body responds to stress on a knee that everyone but Rivers accepts is not. not completely healed.

“The swelling is the biggest thing,” Embiid said. “You just have to cross your fingers and hope that’s not the case.”

In the meantime, the Sixers will try to balance what worked in Game 1 – spacing for Harden, whose 45-for-30 points in the series opener cratered to 12-for-14 in deference to Embiid – and the reincorporation of the reigning MVP. If their demeanor following the loss was any indication, they’re hoping a combination of shaking off the rust from Embiid, matching Boston’s effort, manufacturing 13-plus assists and closing a 42-point gap at the arc can retain home court advantage. they flew.

“We’ll fix it,” Embiid said.

“It’ll be easy to see on film,” Rivers added, “and it’ll be easy to fix.”

Game plans could be. Injuries? Not so easy to fix.

“If I had come back in Game 3 I’m probably rusty and not myself, but I feel like I just got rid of it,” Embiid said. “I’m disappointed with the loss, but it’s a step towards getting back to myself. Obviously I have a lot of work to do. It starts tonight and tomorrow to make sure I’m ready for Friday.”

Crossed fingers.

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