It’s almost always a long way to four wins in the NBA playoffs, but if there’s one factor that suggests a distinct Toronto advantage as a deadlocked series moves to Philadelphia, it stands seven feet tall and appears to require the height of NBA maintenance.
Even as the Sixers evened the best-of-seven at a game apiece with a 94-89 win in Game 2, Philadelphia’s all-star centre Joel Embiid continued to be a relative nonfactor. That’s a sizable problem for the Sixers. At his best, Embiid is a shot-blocking menace with a soft-touched scoring knack — a two-time all-star and a member of last season’s NBA all-defensive second team. But the opening pair of games have underlined, he has clearly not arrived in these playoffs at his best.
Not that he didn’t have his moments Monday, including a big-time driving layup that put the Sixers up 92-89 with 24 seconds to play. Even with that rare flash of brilliance Embiid went 2-for-7 from the field en route to 12 points, six rebounds, five assists and six turnovers, this after shooting 5-for-18 in Game 1.
On Monday morning, he forewent the team’s shootaround citing “gastroenteritis” — stomach flu, in English. It was only the latest update to the Cameroonian’s laundry list of grim health issues. Drafted third overall in 2014, various foot and knee ailments delayed Embiid’s NBA debut until 2016. And in the past two seasons he’s missed games to back tightness, a facial contusion, a sore back, a sore ankle, a sore hand and a migraine.
Lately he’s been dealing with tendinitis in his left knee that kept him out of 14 games in the season’s final seven weeks and continues to dog him. And that kind of knee injury, for an athlete of Embiid’s dimensions, can create a vicious cycle. The tendinitis has kept Philly’s franchise player from training regularly, so he’s put on weight, clearly well beyond his listed 260 pounds. And because he’s put on weight, his tendinitis has been flaring up under the additional strain. On Monday, the Sixers coach Brett Brown acknowledged the all-star is hardly in all-world condition.
“I mean the reality, the fact that he has not played a ton of basketball, none of us should be shocked to think like he’s not at 100-per-cent fitness,” Brown said. “And you could see it (in Game 1). So as opposed to me force-feeding an incredible amount of pace, which I think we’re pretty good at when we do play fast, there are times, like, you just get Joel’s situation.”
In other words, advantage Toronto, which could chalk up the Game 2 loss to a dismal night shooting open jump shots.
The Sixers would love to play fast. They’d love it if prime-shape Embiid could race down the floor to receive the ball in the post before Toronto has time to set up a defence bent on collapsing and clawing at Embiid every time he touches the ball. Because the reality of Toronto’s stout defence — as led by Marc Gasol — is that it’s attuned to the need to make life hard on Philly’s biggest threat.
“Anything that just doesn’t produce a first look, a quick look, there’s going to be a crowd (around Embiid),” Brown acknowledged.
Maybe that wouldn’t be as big a problem if Embiid were in top form. But three seasons into his active career at age 25, it’s easy to get the idea that he could spend an entire career eternally searching for that sweet spot with only occasional success. Sure, he’s also an Instagram darling of commendable wit and star quality. But in these playoffs, at least, he’s yet to play in considerable quantity, averaging about 25 minutes a game heading into Monday. Hardly the stuff of the future-hall-of-fame forecast that’s been laid at his size-17 feet.
So that’s the reality of this series. Toronto’s best player, Kawhi Leonard, is ever on point and machinelike. Philly’s is out of shape and good at social media. The Raptors couldn’t ask for more from their No. 1 guy — although in Game 2 they could have helped him more. The Sixers can only hope theirs will deliver soon.
“(Embiid is) going to end up — or has a chance to end up — as one of the greatest players who ever lived,” Brown told ESPN recently. “It’s completely driven by his health. He’s very bright, very prideful. But his emotions can’t trump reckless, irresponsible action either by him or us to go do something he shouldn’t.”
The Sixers, of course, have placed a huge bet on Embiid’s viability. The chief fruit of the infamous “process,” the epic tank job that spurred the league to change its draft-lottery parameters, he’s now in the second year of a five-year deal worth about $148 million (U.S.). And the franchise’s internal expectations are considerable.
“We have enough talent on our roster that if we play the way we’re capable of playing, we can beat any team in the East,” Harris has said.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that on Monday, with Embiid ailing, Brown, the easy fall guy if those lofty projections aren’t met, was doing his best to point out the prevailing pre-series opinion: Few have picked the Sixers to advance.
“We get, coming into Toronto the overwhelming majority feels we have no chance in the series,” Brown said. “As I said before, all six of the Philadelphia media said we’re not gonna win. Eighteen out of 20 ESPN people said we’re not gonna win. We have to maintain our spirit … The common denominator is survival and fight and buying time and all those types of things.”
Time might be the thing on Philly’s side. There are two off days before Thursday’s Game 3 in Philadelphia, then another two before Sunday’s Game 4. If the load-management-era Raptors will appreciate the rest, you can make the case it’s Philly that truly needs it.
“I have declared to the public through the media my vision of how I see this: Just land the plane and get to the playoffs, then lock this thing down with Jo buying time,” Brown said. “The time that you’re referring to in between games is unique. Normally, that span isn’t available most times in the format of the NBA playoffs. So, for us, given Joel, that’s where I think possibly it can help.”
Maybe it’ll help. Maybe it won’t. Brown, for his part, isn’t expecting to see his all-star centre looking like an all-world speedster in the near future.
“To feel like it’s going to be a track meet with Jo at this stage given his lack of play and opportunities over the past, say, month, would be ridiculously naive and unfair to him,” Brown said. “So somewhere in the middle you try to create an environment where he’s still Joel Embiid and is as skilled as any big man in the NBA.”
He’s skilled, for sure. Whether or not he’s skilled enough to find his game while overweight, under-conditioned and not yet over his chronic knee troubles — as always, Embiid tantalizes with potential while his ceiling remains noticeably untouched.
Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk
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