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An Ailing Joel Embiid Isn't All That Ails The 76ers

Photo: Vaughn Ridley (Getty)

The 76ers were blown out in Game 5 Tuesday night, 125–89, by Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors. Nothing much worked for Philadelphia—the closest they came to a functional offense was Jimmy Butler willing his way to the line for 11 free throws. By the midpoint of the fourth quarter, the game had become a laugher, with Amir Johnson and T.J. McConnell in for mop-up duty.

A huge and debilitating problem for the 76ers is Joel Embiid’s systemic doo-doo butt. What started as a case of the shits has become an upper respiratory infection, on top of a balky, tendinitis-riddled knee. Embiid looked downright miserable on the floor for his 31 minutes of burn; in the fourth quarter, when Brett Brown finally ended his suffering, Embiid appeared to be having something like an emotional breakdown on the bench. At his best, Embiid is one of the very best and most destructive players in basketball; in his current condition, he was good for a Thomas Bryant-like 13 points and six rebounds, and a Hasheem Thabeet-like eight turnovers. You’d cry, too, especially after eating this huge Kawhi dunk:

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But Embiid’s condition is only part of what is ailing these 76ers. Yes, the Raptors are quite good, and Kawhi Leonard is a monster and a killer, and when Toronto finally gets production from various Serge Ibakas and Fred VanVleets, they really are a huge problem for anyone. But it’s useful to remember that the 76ers solidly pounded the bejeezus out of an otherwise very game Nets squad, on the road, in a game in which Embiid never once touched the floor. They won Game 2 of this Raptors series, in Toronto, while Embiid was battling severe mudbutt, and was limited to a very familiar-looking 12 points, six rebounds, and six turnovers. The 76ers would not be picked to beat the Raptors in a game without a full-strength Embiid, but they’ve shown they can hold their own.

The other major problem for the Sixers these last couple games has been the production of Ben Simmons. He’s got an extremely hard job to do in this series, because Kawhi is both an unstoppable offensive monster and also one of the toughest defenders in basketball, and those two are inevitably matched up a ton. Part of what Kawhi has working to his advantage, though, is Simmons’s utter passivity at the offensive end. Simmons has scored 33 total points over the last four games of the series, including just seven points Tuesday night. He has attempted just three total free throws over that span. And where he was at least willing to take shots—a modest but respectable 13 of them—in Philadelphia’s Game 3 win at home, in Game 5 he attempted just five field goal attempts in 25 minutes. He has become a complete non-entity in Philly’s half-court offense; were it not for his five turnovers, it would be possible to forget he’d even been in the game. During the remotely competitive portion of Tuesday night’s loss, you would’ve had a hard time guessing which of Philadelphia’s home-grown stars had poop-lung.

Kawhi is a tough enough defensive presence without forcing his opponents to play with just four offensive players. And he’s enough of a shot-making force without giving him 20 seconds of rest between offensive possessions. The Sixers desperately need Ben Simmons to rediscover something like the ferocious, world-destroying form he took in that Game 3 win in Brooklyn, sans Embiid, when he attacked the paint constantly and finished with 31 points and the head of Jared Dudley for above his mantelpiece. They would need that even if Embiid were healthy, but while he’s not, the 76ers cannot survive with passive, chill-out-in-the-dunker-spot Ben Simmons. They can’t begin to hope to scramble Toronto’s defense with just three and a half offensive players.

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Philadelphia’s stars coming up empty becomes a systemic problem. Embiid’s gravity in the paint is a huge part of what frees up Philadelphia’s perimeter guys to buzz around and trot into open three-pointers. With Embiid dead and Simmons checked out, J.J. Redick was held to a completely unacceptable three points on six shots, just three of which came from beyond the arc; Butler shot 6-of-16 from the floor and got up just two three-point looks; the Sixers were led in three-point attempts by Embiid, with six, which is a very long way from ideal. Not coincidentally, the 76ers were held to by far their lowest offensive rating of these playoffs, a hideous and unsurvivable 89.9 points per 100 possessions.

The Sixers will have a shot at tying the series in Game 6, back in Philadelphia. At this point it seems like too much to hope for a completely healthy Embiid, but even a marginally more upright one would make a big difference. One way or another, the Sixers are going to need something from Simmons if they’re going to advance. When he’s playing like this, it’s not clear what his role even is in this series, beyond a mean-mugging Andre Roberson who sometimes brings the ball up court before vanishing along the baseline. He doesn’t have to be their best player, but he can’t settle for being their fifth- or sixth-best. That way lies elimination.

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