TORONTO — A half hour after it ended, the gravity of the opportunity they squandered became clear. Joel Embiid trudged into a makeshift conference room at Scotiabank Arena with a black athletic wrap on his hand and a blank expression on his face. He spoke in a tone that we have heard before: distant, downtrodden, tinged with a hint of spite.
“In basketball,” he said, “you need to use your hand a lot.”
With that, a 110-102 loss to the Raptors began to feel a whole lot bigger than the series line score suggested. Game 4 closeout opportunities are rarely must-wins. At the same time, must-wins are rarely easily identifiable in the moment. The Sixers will have three more opportunities to polish off the Raptors, but they may not get another to earn a regroup that they desperately need. Saturday was it. And they looked wholly uninterested in taking advantage.
Raptors beat Sixers, 110-102, to force a Game 5 and fend off sweep in first-round playoff series — Analysis
Even before tipoff, there were plenty of hints that something was amiss, and that the Sixers would be playing for something far more important than winning one of the next four. The 48 hours leading up to Game 4 had seen Embiid’s thumb mushroom from a footnote to a potentially climactic plot point in a young playoff run. Nobody can say for sure when he suffered the injury, only that it has become way more of a factor than it seemed to be when he hit a last-second fadeaway three to give the Sixers the win in Game 3. But the ensuing two-day layoff brought increasing whispers of structural damage and a rising tide of concern in the head coach’s public comments.
During a lengthy pregame shooting session 90 minutes before Saturday’s tip, Embiid’s stroke looked confident, steady, smooth despite the wrap around his thumb. But in the game itself, he looked suspiciously like a player protecting an injury, his attention divided between the things he needed to do to win a playoff basketball game and the realization that he was not fully equipped to execute them. He was tentative, sloppy, frustrated, preoccupied with the Raptors’ physicality instead of feeding off it. Invisible in the first half, Embiid emerged for only a few brief flurries of production in the second as his teammates stood around waiting for the dominance that never arrived. His final line score offered a well-rounded look at the concern: 21 points and only eight rebounds in 39 minutes, five ugly turnovers, including several wildly off-target passes.
In short, he looked like a player who could desperately use a week of lead time to prepare himself for a series against the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded team. Consider the things that can and likely will happen in the coming days: an MRI on the injured right thumb, a consideration of the long-term effects of playing with a torn ligament in his shooting hand, an evaluation of options, surgical and otherwise. Embiid’s track record suggests that he will do everything he can to continue to play. The bigger question is the reinvention that will need to take place by both player and team.
“All injuries are different,” Embiid said. “I wish it would have happened on my other hand, not my shooting hand, but I’m going to adjust.”
And therein lies the Sixers’ biggest defeat. Not often does a team enter a Game 4 with both a 3-0 series lead and a dire need to reinvent itself. But that is where they were on Saturday. They knew Embiid’s thumb had become an issue that would likely linger for however long the postseason lasted. They knew that they could give themselves a week of lead time to heal and prepare. They knew that the top-seeded Heat had given them a gift with a Game 3 loss to the Hawks on Friday night. And then they took the court with a collective shrug.
For the fourth straight game, the Raptors were an eminently beatable team. They shot 42% from the field, 24% from three-point range. The truly elite teams are built to withstand blows like the one that hobbled Embiid. But the Sixers looked lost without their MVP.
“I just didn’t think we deserved to win,” head coach Doc Rivers said. “Our guys have been good, but we weren’t great tonight. That mental part of the game, where you have to come and play — I didn’t think we had that tonight. They played harder, tougher, faster, more physical. Good things come to the energy.”
Look, everybody on the court is human, and the guys in the other jerseys are in the NBA for a reason, too. It is difficult enough to win four out of seven games against the same opponent, let alone win four straight. But the Sixers didn’t even try to deny what everybody watching had seen.
“They played harder,” said second-year point guard Tyrese Maxey, who finished with a mere 11 points on 4-of-12 shooting. “They played way harder. You could tell they were extremely desperate, played with a physical mindset. We just have to be better, and we will be better.”
They better be. Game 5 will tell us a lot about what to expect from these Sixers the rest of the way. We have seen Embiid make plenty of miraculous recoveries before, including at this same juncture last year. In a span of two weeks last May, the knee injury that Embiid suffered in a potential closeout game against the Wizards went from back-breaker to barely worth a mention. Sometimes, the hardest part of playing through an injury is understanding that you can.
Yet, as Embiid said earlier, you don’t shoot a basketball with your knee. Your knee is not repeatedly karate-chopped throughout the course of a game. This time, the Sixers might not have anything close to the player they got in last year’s seven-game loss to the Hawks.
It is on the players and the coach to figure it out: to make Maxey more of a featured component, to knock down the open looks that, in Game 4, routinely rattled out, to finish at the rim. It could take some work, and they won’t have the luxury of two additional days of doing it in a controlled environment. Maybe this wasn’t a must-win. But the Sixers sure could have used it.
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