Joel Embiid apologized, but he did not seem sincere. The kind of laughter gave him away. The first game of the Sixers' first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets had not left Philadelphia with much to tease. The Nets were a tough loser, but they won at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday, leaving some people in panic. The Sixers returned the favor in the second game and beat the opposition, in at least one case, literally.
Before and during the series, Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson and his Sixers counterpart Brett Brown talked a lot about "haymakers" and "fist fights" and were "face to face" . Atkinson said his opponents pushed us "and" really got into us "in Game 2. He clbadified the second fight as" extreme physics. "You could say yes.
Poor Jarrett Allen. At one point on Monday night, Allen's face made the unfortunate mistake of being between Embiid's elbow and the basket. If nothing else, Allen has a better jaw than Andrei Svechnikov.
After leveling the first round series in 1-1, Embiid was asked about his full contact post movement.
"Obviously, it was not intentional," Embiid said. "I have it pretty good and I'm sorry."
Ben Simmons was sitting next to him for the post-game talk. He also doubted Embiid's sincerity. Simmons laughed. Embiid also laughed. He continued for a while.
Replay Review (Game Crew): if the fault committed by Embiid met the criteria for a flagrant foul in Q2 of #BKNatPHI. Rule: penalty for flagrant fault 1 badigned to Embiid for making unnecessary contact with Allen. pic.twitter.com/UrPpNo5MyC
– Official of the NBA (@NBAOfficial) April 16, 2019
The Sixers have not shot well from the distance in the series, they have only managed 12 of 48 three-pointers, but they have been excellent in the low. They have outperformed the Nets in both games by a wide margin (plus-32), and have scored more points in the paint (plus-20). Atkinson said the Sixers "dominated" the Nets in both areas. That obviously had a lot to do with Embiid, who scored a double-double for the second consecutive game in limited minutes. In Game 2, he also scored the first seven points in a reverse of 51 points in the third quarter (tied for the most points in a quarter in NBA history).
But about Allen, Embiid was just so sorry about that, you know? Here, again, the malicious smile on his face suggested otherwise. He apologized for the second time, and Simmons laughed a second time.
"Normally I'm not humble," Embiid said. He pointed to Simmons. "That's why he's laughing."
No. Embiid is not usually humble. Just a month ago, he made a peabad in a nationally televised interview after the game, after the Sixers beat the rival Celtics. Embiid had 37 points, 22 rebounds, four badists, one steal and one block against Boston that night. He felt pretty good about that.
"I'm the most unstoppable player in the league," he boasted.
It was a bold statement, and it might even be true. But to be true, it has to be on the floor, and that has not always been the case. Not lately, and not for long stretches of his career. After the All-Star break, Embiid missed 13 of the team's last 23 games. The Sixers initially attributed it to the "handling of the load", then revealed that Embiid was experiencing pain in his left knee due to what they diagnosed as tendonitis. Embiid said he is "playing with the pain" and seemed to realize that without him, the Sixers are a more tenuous and less dangerous version of his better self. They were more-5.8 with Embiid on the court this season and less-1.9 without him, according to NBA.com/Stats. But all the statistics in the world only confirm what anyone can see: the Sixers are really good with Embiid and something like that without him.
In a playoff promotion for ESPN, Embiid was recruited in a bit of forced humility for the propaganda and public relations purposes of the entire league. "It's not just about me," he said with a serious face towards the camera. Except that it really is.
After Game 1, Brown said Embiid looked "tired", and Embiid said "out of shape". During parts of Game 2, I thought that it seemed Sloooow during certain stretches while advancing heavily on the court behind the rest of the pack.
Line 1 of the Embiid game: 25 minutes, 22 points (5-15 FG, 0-5 3PT, 12-18 FT), 15 rebounds, four badists, five blocks.
Line 2 of the Embiid game: 21 minutes, 23 points (8-12 FG, 0-0 3PT, 7-8 FT), 10 rebounds, one badist.
Embiid was questionable to play in both games. Imagine if you were completely healthy and not in a minute restriction. Jarrett Allen would need a goalie mask.
"Obviously, with so many games missing, it's hard to find a rhythm," Embiid said. "And in addition to having a minute restriction, it's hard to find a rhythm."
He said he tries to forget the pain when he's on the ground. Probably not so easy. He has not practiced during the series. When we were allowed to enter the Sixers training center for media availability earlier this week, Embiid was facedown on a table at the opposite end of the court with a medical staff member working on his body, all that . Before the series began, Embiid initially told us that "the level of pain has changed. It has gotten worse. "He said it bothered him only when he" jumped. Landing. Exciting. The game of basketball. "
Since his star basketball player feels pain when playing "the basketball game," and given how terrible the opening game was, he would expect these to be times of tension for the Sixers. However, the environment surrounding the team, with the notable exception of questions about Embiid's health, has been surprisingly relaxed. Simmons insisted, both before the series began and after the first two games, that "there was no pressure". And if anyone secretly hoped that Jimmy Butler would recover after the Game 1 defeat, they were disappointed. Butler was the quietest of them all.
"Man, the same shit," Butler said when asked about the team's mood during the weekend. "We're lucky, we have the opportunity to play basketball every day, we're in the playoffs, we're a 3-seed, they were happy, it could be a lot worse, we could be down 0-4, but we're not."
If they had lost 0-4, we would have been having a very different conversation with him while the Sixers cleaned their locker and headed for an extremely uncomfortable low season. But you understand his point. In general, the Sixers seemed to be in a pretty good headspace, which does not mean they are without any worries.
Embiid's situation has been frustrating for him. For Brown, too. The latter had to answer endless questions about Embiid's condition in the run-up to the postseason, which made him untypically huffy with the reporters. Lately, he tried to avoid being the person in charge of updating Embiid's health and told us to "please consult" the official medical sheet distributed by the public relations staff. This probably will not resolve itself in the short term. The people I spoke with in the organization said that Embiid's willingness to move forward will probably be an unknown day-to-day, no matter how long its postseason lasts. Brown did not deny it.
"We are in a phase, we are at a stage where we are buying time," Brown said. "Can we win and buy a few more days? Can we get another victory and buy a few more days? We could lose, but we are alive. Buy three more days. This is the path we are following with Joel. "
That road puts the Sixers in a difficult place. They no longer have their eyes on the horizon. If they did, there would have been no need to swap rotation players / favorites from fans like Dario Saric and Robert Covington or young shooters like Landry Shamet, or dive into the deep reservoir of draft picks that did not exist before. These Sixers are very focused on what is directly in front of them: this postseason and they keep it as long as possible. In theory, this is a good approach, but in reality it faces what the property and the main office demand in the face of what the medical staff is trying to unite almost daily.
That's not just frustrating for Embiid, Brown and the Sixers. Fans and critics are also not excited. As many people have complained, the general idea of "cargo management" is to do the management part in the initial and middle sections of the season so there is more charge for the playoffs. The Sixers had all that upside down. Embiid played in 26 consecutive games to start the season. That included four back-to-backs. He averaged 34.3 minutes in that stretch. That's a lot for anybody, and it's definitely a lot for someone who's on the 7-foot-250-pound list (feels like the public relations staff generously saved a few pounds), has a long and well-documented history of injuries, and He lost the first two seasons of his career. It's part of the reason why, according to reports, the organization wrote health provisions in the new contract it signed before the start of last season.
There is a reason why the coaches and medical staff of the Sixers have often been criticized for the way they handle these things: they have not been very good at it and they are often on different pages. To be fair, not everything is in the team. Embiid said he is trying to focus on his diet, rest well and improve his conditioning to help his body heal so he can continue playing in the playoffs. It's something we've heard before. In the offseason, he promised to be in better shape, only to return this season and Andre Drummond will break his balls and call him "fat out of shape".
The constantly questionable status of Embiid necessarily changes the strategy of the Sixers. When Brown was asked a few days ago about how it is different when Embiid is available instead of when it is not, the head coach looked at his left hand and said, "There is night," then looked at his right hand and reached it. Far away and said: "And there is a day".
"You go to both sides of the ball, it's completely different," Brown said. "Let's call that for what it is." Brown said they have had "sample sizes" with Boban Marjanovic and "little sample sizes" with Greg Monroe and was hoping to get something from Jonah Bolden in the series. But even if I could unite them all in some kind of Frankencenter, the three combined would not come close to Embiid's ability.
"There is no doubt," Brown admitted, "that [Joel] It is our jewel in the crown. "
Ben Simmons fans could interpret that as a slight and shake their fists (incorrect) in heaven, but it is a difficult point for any objective observer to discuss. As Brown put it in the offseason, Embiid's future "everything is his body". The same could be said about the future of the Sixers.
The Sixers declared that their window is now, but that window closes quite simply without a completely healthy Embiid on the floor. And even with A completely healthy Embiid on the floor, things are not necessarily easier for the franchise. Here there are many complications, many of which seem to be potentially unforced errors committed by the Sixers.
Joshua Harris admitted that the Sixers have "high expectations." The managing partner of the team said it more than once last week during an unexpected and strange question and answer session. (Apparently, no one told him that these are not the best times for surprise press conferences). Approximately one hour before the Sixers began their series at home against the Nets, Harris turned to the media at the Wells Fargo Center in an interview room a few feet away. from the court and declared: "We want to make a deep career".
It's probably true for the organization, but at that moment it felt more like a statement of "I" than of "us." When he and his partners bought the equipment for the first time (for a criminally low price of less than $ 300 million), Harris used to be seen on the whole team, but rarely heard. That has changed lately. At this year's Sloan Sports Analytics conference, Harris said the Sixers "have enough talent to go deep in the playoffs." He simply said that a lot was out of place compared to his generally reserved approach when it comes to evaluating his team. Then he went further and said that not going deep into the postseason would be "problematic" and that it would make him "unhappy". He said that "the pressure is on the delivery".
To say that in Boston at the beginning of March is one thing, but to call an impromptu press conference to underline your point just before your team takes the floor in the postseason is something else entirely. Harris is a pretty soft guy, but that message was heard loud and clear. It was interesting to see him take a step forward at that moment and be so direct. The general manager, Elton Brand, was sitting next to him, but it was undoubtedly Harris's show. He put the players on notice. The coach, too.
When Harris was asked if Brown would be the head coach despite what happened in the playoffs, the managing partner thanked Brown for "a tremendous job" by winning 50 games in consecutive seasons, and gave credit to Brown for working "side by side with me" for six seasons "and added:" At the moment, I think we support Brett. "Then, Harris said he was focused on the Nets. As the votes of confidence go, it was not much of one. That's not the kind of thing that someone would want to hear from their boss before that amounts to an important performance evaluation that could determine everyone's future.
If the "Sixers" mandate in the deep playoffs was not evident to everyone after the trade deadline, it certainly was after all that. The juxtaposition between this season and the last one is surprising. A year ago, the Sixers entered the postseason with a streak of 16 consecutive wins. They beat the Heat in the first round. And even though they lost to the rival Celtics in the second round, which included the indignity of prematurely firing their celebratory confetti cannon at a loss, it was a successful race in any measure.
This season looks different despite the fact that the Sixers won more than 50 games for the second year in a row for the first time in more than three decades. It should have been a happy occasion; instead, the main owner is here, telling everyone, from the players to the coach, that it is better to do more. He did not have to add the "or if not" part; That does not need to be said now. The old organizational spirit of having a long-term vision was scrapped in favor of a winning strategy immediately. There was no gradual transition. One minute the process ended and the next the Sixers were "Star hunting" in full public view.
Part of that is understandable. The Sixers want to get the most out of Embiid and Simmons while they are at their best. Embiid is only 25 years old, but sometimes he moves as if he were considerably older. Every time he hits the floor or plunges into the crowd, what happens more than the Sixers would probably prefer, it seems that everyone in Philadelphia keeps collective breathing. The Sixers could also hand out promotional paper bags for the crowd to hyperventilate instead of gathering towels to greet.
Accelerating the timeline increased the concomitant anxiety. How could it not be that way when everyone, from Brown to Elton Brand and Josh Harris, keep pushing the Sixers as contenders right now? in this same second? The Sixers wanted to improve this season and traded Covington, Saric, Jerryd Bayless and a second-round pick for Butler, who will be a free agent without restrictions this offseason. They then sent Landry Shamet, Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, two future first-round picks (including the unprotected 2021 from Miami), and two second-round picks for Tobias Harris. He will also be a free agent without restrictions this offseason. Certain former Sixers in that deal are better than others, but in general that's a lot to give up two players who have been alternately inconsistent. (Butler had a Game 1 badbadin, then fell in Game 2, Harris was invisible in the first exit, then appeared for the second).
The troubling part is that after making those moves, the Sixers still can not be sure what exactly they have here. When entering the postseason, the crucial players in question had done it together on the court only 10 times. Embiid, Simmons, Butler, Harris and JJ Redick both went 8-2 together in the regular season. And although they had an impressive offensive rating of 119 and a defensive rating of 101.4, according to NBA.com/Stats, they played a total of 161 minutes together. It is a sample size small enough to be just a sample. Any grade in the Sixers is still incomplete.
Josh Harris told us last week that the Sixers want to stay with Tobias Harris and Butler because players of that caliber are difficult to acquire. He is right. The franchise learned the difficult lesson of last season when they had a lot of space at the top, but there were no high-level free agents to count on. The retention of Harris and Butler would bring them closer to the luxury tax in the foreseeable future and hinder how the Sixers can complete the rest of the list, especially since Simmons will soon be online to sign an extension. That would be a lot of money wrapped in four players. "We got it," Harris stipulated. "It is expensive."
Do the Sixers want to pay the maximum money for Tobias Harris and Butler and, therefore, limit their flexibility if they are not absolutely sure that they will be consistent contenders in the championship? Conversely, can you afford to let either of you walk after surrendering so much to acquire them? The Sixers have tough decisions ahead, but none of that will matter unless Embiid is healthy. The Sixers could lock up Tobias and Jimmy, but if Embiid is not healthy, they will have to tackle the new practice center and paint with "abandoned" aerosol in the building.
Brown has a saying for the Sixers approach: "shape, spirit, health, plane lands". Those last two are important and are directly related to your best player. All the Sixers care about is landing that plane somewhere deep in the postseason, but unless Embiid is on board, they'll be lucky not to crash.