Doubtful does not seem to mean the same thing for Joel Embiid as it does for the average NBA player.
Though Embiid was listed as such on the NBA’s official injury report prior to the Sixers’ series opener vs. the Nets, all the cameras and cell phones were still following his every move over two hours before tip-off, observing the brace on his sore left knee and searching for hints about whether he’d play.
Ultimately, Embiid did take the floor, and in 24 minutes he recorded 22 points on 5 for 15 shooting, 15 rebounds, four assists and five blocks in the Sixers’ 111-102 loss (see observations). He was sensational at times, like when he slithered through the Nets’ defense with a smooth sidestep and converted an and-one in the third quarter, but he wasn’t his usual self.
Getting up and down the court was a painful process.
“I decided about 15 minutes before the game, 20 maybe,” Embiid said. “I was out there just with my guys and push through the pain. And obviously it came with a loss, but I was just trying to do the right thing.”
Embiid admitted he needed to adapt his game because of his knee pain. He shot 1 for 9 in the first half, missing all five of his three-point attempts.
“Going into the game I was going to try to kind of reduce my physical abilities and just shoot more jumpers and that’s what I did,” he said. “They didn’t go in, but we move on.”
Brett Brown attributed Embiid settling for three-pointers “exclusively to fatigue.” Embiid hadn’t played in a week, and his conditioning deterioritated during that time.
“Out of shape,” Embiid said. “Obviously I haven’t done anything for a week, since the Chicago game. But I’m fine. I’m going to get it right back.”
The apparent spontaneity of the situation was unusual. Embiid decided to ditch the knee brace after warming up, since he said it was putting pressure on his calf and tibia.
There isn’t a standard procedure for how to balance your star player’s health, comfort and pain level with your team’s chances of winning a playoff game or series. Jimmy Butler said he’s advised Embiid on how to handle his side of the complicated equation.
“I tell him all the time, yeah, he can help us, but at the same time he can hurt us if it gets worse,” Butler said. “Don’t get me wrong, we want Jo out there. But we definitely want him healthy.”
Embiid’s primary backup, Boban Marjanovic, played well Saturday, scoring 13 points on 5 for 7 shooting and dishing out four assists. The Sixers might soon be forced to determine whether a grimacing Embiid is preferable to a healthy Marjanovic.
For the time being, the Sixers are optimistic Embiid’s knee starts trending in the right direction and that they can avoid the sort of uncomfortable questions central to Saturday night’s loss.
“He definitely did try to go and give it his best,” Tobias Harris said of Embiid. “I have respect for him for fighting through that. Obviously we need him to get healthy. Hopefully in this little period of time he can get some rest and get recovered, but it was tough because he wasn’t really playing his normal way.”
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