Updated: 9:58 p.m.
The Sixers’ number of available All-Stars has dropped from two to zero this week.
Joel Embiid left Sunday’s game vs. the Portland Trail Blazers in the first quarter with a left ankle injury and the Sixers fell, 124-121. They’re now 42-28 and next play the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday at 4:30 p.m.
Damian Lillard was brilliant on his way to 51 points, while Josh Richardson scored 34, his most as a Sixer, on 13 for 20 shooting. Richardson missed a game-tying three-point try on the Sixers’ last possession, and the team couldn’t manage another attempt following a chaotic battle for the offensive rebound.
Below are observations on the game:
Embiid grimaced after his left foot landed awkwardly on the basket stanchion during a first-quarter play. His momentum carried him into the stanchion after he ran back on a fast break to contest a shot by Blazers rookie Wenyen Gabriel. Following the play, he appeared to be moving less freely than usual for a few possessions before Brett Brown called a timeout.
With three seeding games remaining before the playoffs, Embiid’s health should be the clear priority. His availability matters much more than whether the Sixers catch Indiana or Miami in the standings. A core tenet of the Sixers’ plan in Simmons’ absence was to lean on Embiid, and he’d been playing like someone who might just be skilled enough to carry a team. In his first four games at Disney World, he’d averaged 30.0 points, 13.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists.
“I’m going to learn more physically," Brett Brown said after the game. "I don’t know enough to comment on it. ... Joel was fully engaged as a teammate. As it relates to what his injury is or what it actually means, I can’t comment. I don’t know. But it was great just to see him being a part of the group.”
An admirable effort
While it seemed little was going right for a deflated Sixers team immediately after Embiid left, the effort was good given the circumstances and the team erased a Blazers lead once as large as 17 points.
Richardson led the charge with an offensive showing that was by far his best in Disney World. His jumper from the right wing with 4.1 seconds remaining in the third quarter gave the Sixers an unlikely 92-91 lead. We’ve seen in a few games this season that he’s capable of scoring in bunches — his 17-point fourth quarters against the Pacers on Jan. 13 and Clippers on Feb. 11 come to mind. Placed in a central offensive role Sunday, he stepped up.
Alec Burks had another efficient, confident performance, scoring 15 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter and again closing over Shake Milton.
Richardson got the initial, challenging assignment on Lillard. He didn’t fare very well early, offering Lillard unobstructed paths to the rim and struggling to get on top of ball screens. Lillard had 12 of the Blazers’ first 16 points. The five-time All-Star also blew past Milton and Matisse Thybulle on several occasions and got hot from long distance in the fourth quarter.
Brown’s pregame analysis of the defensive challenges the Sixers face without Simmons proved spot-on, and those issues were exacerbated when Embiid exited.
“Ben’s versatility was off the charts,” Brown said. “Even him being found on centers didn’t really worry me. I don’t think people really understand how bull strong he is. And so it’s complicated and bothersome. I think, no matter what you do, I would use words like it’s gotta be done by committee, you can’t rely on Joel, it’s gotta be a group thing, and so on and so forth. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that you do feel immediately a level of pain with his absence.”
More defensive switching and zone defense were two specific schematic adjustments Brown mentioned as possibilities, and perhaps we’ll see some unconventional looks moving forward. It would’ve been difficult to successfully play zone in this matchup against the Blazers’ dynamic, sweet-shooting backcourt of Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Embiid’s exit prompted Brown to insert Norvel Pelle for the first time in the seeding games. The big man was surrounded by Burks, Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz and Glenn Robinson III. That all-bench lineup was, as one might imagine, rather disjointed and frenetic. There was sparse offensive direction outside of Burks looking to find space off the dribble and Pelle setting ball screens. The Sixers trailed 33-19 after the first quarter and shot just 6 for 24 in the period. Tobias Harris then replaced Korkmaz and, with Richardson, became a focal point of the offense.
Brown said before the game that he still intended to maintain a nine-man rotation without Simmons, but that plan obviously had to be abandoned. Twelve Sixers played, including Kyle O’Quinn, who checked into the game when Al Horford picked up his third foul. Mike Scott was used as a small-ball five in the fourth quarter ahead of both traditional backup centers and did a decent job in that role, posting nine points and four rebounds.
Along with Pelle and O’Quinn, Robinson made his seeding game debut. The 26-year-old wing, who’d been sidelined by a left hip flexor injury, had four points and three rebounds in 17 minutes.
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