After Game 1 injury scare, Joel Embiid remains at the center of Sixers-Knicks playoff series



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NEW YORK — Joel Embiid made one one the most electrifying plays of his career on Saturday, but it went from sensational to scary as soon as his feet hit the ground. With less than three minutes remaining in the second quarter of the Philadelphia 76ers’ playoff opener against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, the NBA’s reigning MVP threw the ball off the glass to himself and dunked on Knicks forward OG Anunoby. As his teammates started to celebrate, Embiid landed, grabbed at his left knee and fell to the floor. It is the same knee that Embiid had a surgical procedure on the meniscus in February.

Forward Kelly Oubre Jr., the closest Sixer to Embiid on the court, quickly went from A) flexing at Embiid to B) trying to catch him as he fell to C) running back on defense. Oubre’s first thought was “hell of a play,” he said, “and then, oh shit.”

When Embiid eventually got up, he walked to the locker room, and he didn’t reemerge until moments before the third quarter was underway, after the rest of the team had done their usual halftime warmups. 

“We were in the huddle, and then I get on the court and No. 21 is there,” Oubre said. “But that just goes to say he’s resilient, he wants to win, he’s going to do every single thing, he’s going to put his body on the line.”

Embiid wound up playing 20 minutes in the second half and 37 total. He finished with 29 points on 8-for-22 shooting (and 11-for-12 from the free throw line), eight rebounds and six assists. He was plus-14 in the 111-104 loss — in the 11 minutes that he sat, Philadelphia was outscored by 21 points.

Sixers coach Nick Nurse said that Embiid would be assessed “just like we do after every game,” and then Philadelphia will determine his status for Monday’s Game 2. Asked if the team was strongly considering shutting Embiid down, Nurse said, “I don’t think so. I think, listen, he’s really a warrior and he’s battling. And I think he absolutely wants to play, but let’s see how he turns out here tonight.” 

Embiid’s alley-oop to himself was “an amazing play,” Oubre said, “but yeah, man, it’s scary. Our bodies are what we use as our vehicles out here, so, you know, it’s tough. And he’s 7-foot, 300 pounds. Might be [lighter] — sorry, Jo, if I called you fat. He might be less weight. But I mean, it’s tough, man. I couldn’t even imagine being 7 feet and being able to move like a guard and do the things that I can do but being that big.” 

It was also an ambitious play for someone who was working his way back after knee surgery, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Nurse wants him to rein it in. In a basketball sense, Embiid’s gambit worked.

“I just think that was the play that happened, and he pump-faked up and the guy jumped over the top of him and he had an angle,” Nurse said. “I don’t know, I’ll have to look at it again, but I just think that kind of was the play that unfolded.”

Embiid declined to speak to reporters postgame, but, wearing a towel and white sunglasses in the locker room, he debriefed with Sixes guard Kyle Lowry. 

For a team that lost Game 1 of a playoff series, the mood was remarkably positive. Oubre, who had five steals and served as the primary defender on Knicks star Jalen Brunson “did an unbelievable job tonight,” Lowry said, as Brunson was limited to 22 points on 8-for-26 shooting and committed five turnovers. 

Nurse said that Philadelphia guard Tyrese Maxey “was really awesome in the second half,” in which he scored 21 of his game-high 33 points. Knicks forward Josh Hart scored 13 points in the fourth quarter, but the two clutch, late-clock 3s he made were shots that the Sixers were willing to give up. 

“We had some really good possessions,” Nurse added. “And even the possessions that they made their last four 3s on, I’m not sure I’m taking those possessions back. I think we were doing what we wanted to do there.”

There were, however, several areas of concern, foremost among them the dismal defensive rebounding. The Knicks had an offensive rebounding rate of 51.8% and scored 26 second-chance points. At significantly less than 100%, Embiid struggled to keep Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein off the glass, but the centers, who grabbed a combined 12 offensive boards, weren’t the only ones doing the damage — Brunson and Hart grabbed a combined nine. 

“We gotta muddy it up a little more,” Oubre said. “Get more physical, hit guys, block out. Everybody has to come in and crash. It’s a five-man job, not just a one- or two-man job. Everybody has to come in there and just team rebound. 

On 4/20, Philadelphia’s bench got smoked. The Knicks had 42 bench points to the Sixers’ seven. New York reserve Miles McBride had 21 points on 7-for-12 shooting, made five of his seven 3-point attempts and was plus-37 in 28 minutes. With Embiid and Brunson on the bench at the beginning of the second quarter, “we didn’t guard anybody,” Nurse said. 

The Knicks hit 3s on three consecutive possessions, and “the crowd started getting into it,” Oubre said. “They had the momentum.” Philadelphia got that momentum back in the third quarter — at one point they scored 32 points on 15 possessions — but lost it again with Embiid on the bench in the fourth. 

Maxey said that, going forward, they have to be able to win the minutes “without the big fella.”

When Embiid is on the floor, Hart said that New York needs to “be more disciplined,” not let him get easy baskets and keep him off the free throw line. He said that Embiid’s alley-oop to himself — and trip to the locker room — didn’t affect the Knicks one way or another. 

“Obviously, a hell of a play on his end,” Hart said. “But it didn’t change anything with our thought process.”





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