BOSTON — Joel Embiid hopes to be cleared for back-to-backs sooner rather than later this season. But he’s not there yet, and so the Sixers have to continue to learn to play without him.
Each one of their three games minus the big man has taught them lessons. Thursday’s loss to the league-leading Celtics shined light on ways to improve on both ends.
“It’s tough because you get into a rhythm and then he’s not there,” Ben Simmons said after the Sixers’ 108-97 loss (see observations).
The Sixers are 1-2 without Embiid this season. The most glaring void is his offensive production, a team-high 22.9 points. It’s not just that Embiid can score; he can create his own opportunities to do so down low. Amir Johnson (six points, six rebounds, four assists) got the nod to start, but his game is more defensive-minded than Embiid’s versatile shot arsenal.
“We miss him in the sense that when our offense gets stagnant, we can always kind of throw him the ball and get a bucket,” JJ Redick (17 points, five assists) said. “Tonight, I thought we moved the ball well, we shot the ball well from three, but we could have for sure used him at times — obviously, all the time — but at times just to kind of calm us down, throw it in the post, and play off that.”
The Sixers were supplemented by a team-high 18 points from Dario Saric, who maximized receiving more touches (see highlights). He also scored 25 in the previous game against the Jazz without Embiid. Brett Brown has been able to turn to Saric in a small-center scenario.
“Tonight, Dario was playing well, so it’s easy to feed him,” Simmons, who posted 15 points, six rebounds, seven assists and five steals, said (see highlights). “But not having Jo there, a lot of the focus is taken away from that player so they’re working on somebody else. He’s a big part of this team but we’ve got to find ways to win without him.”
The hit the Sixers take on defense when Embiid is not in the game has been well-documented. The Sixers lead the league in rebounds (48.9) and out-rebounded the Celtics, 45-40. Saric pulled down 10 and Richaun Holmes added seven off the bench. Still, they were outscored 44-36 in points in the paint.
“You take away a rim defender like Joel and it’s a lot different,” Simmons said.
Brown and the players acknowledged the strong effort despite being shorthanded against the 19-4 Celtics. The Sixers led in the third quarter and trailed by only three in the fourth while missing Embiid and backup point guard T.J. McConnell (shoulder). Their next pair of back-to-back games is coming up Dec. 9 and 10 in Cleveland and New Orleans.
“Hopefully we don’t have to play without him too often,” Redick said.