76ers

Sixers' Joel Embiid healthy but still feels sting of loss to Celtics

Sixers' Joel Embiid healthy but still feels sting of loss to Celtics

CAMDEN, N.J. — Joel Embiid was his usual colorful self during Sixers media day Friday.

The charismatic Cameroonian, sporting a svelter figure, joked about dunking on his new GM (see video) and talked about his goals for this season.

The biggest thing for Embiid: he’s finally healthy and feeling good going into camp.

“I worked on everything,” Embiid said at the team’s practice facility. “This whole summer was more about working on my body and I feel like I’m a complete player. It was always about just perfecting everything because I’m not perfect. I still make a lot of mistakes and I’m still kind of young in basketball.”

While Embiid’s body is healthy, he still feels the sting of last season’s playoff loss to the Celtics. The issues that plagued Embiid during the regular season reared their ugly head. His tendency to force things created turnovers for Boston and his fitness level wasn’t high enough for a physical playoff series.

A slimmed down and more toned Embiid took the podium Friday, supremely confident that he had helped remedy some of his issues with the help of training guru Drew Hanlen. 

“I watched every game from this past season — playoffs included — probably twice,” Embiid said. “Especially that last game, I watched a lot. That game, the layup that I missed to tie the game … I watched it all and it was painful, but I have one goal in mind. Like I said, I was excited to go into the summer finally healthy and we’re going to see what happens this year.”

Embiid was active this summer. From dunking on random dudes on blacktops around the city to participating in the NBA Africa Game to trying to (unsuccessfully) win a fan $25K at a Drake concert, the All-Star center never stopped.

But all along, his focus was on basketball and taking his game to the next level. Sure, he was disappointed the Sixers couldn’t land LeBron James or another star-caliber player, but it’s just served as motivation. 

Embiid has already stated on more than one occasion that he expects to be an MVP candidate. With the goals he has set out for the team, he’ll need to be one.

“An appearance in the NBA Finals and winning it all,” Embiid said when asked of aspirations this season. “I feel like we’ve got the talent to make it happen. Last year was unfortunate, but it’s behind us. I think this year we’ll be much better and we added a couple pieces. It’s going to be exciting.”

Embiid’s huge personality is only outdone by his dominance on the court. He’s always talked a big game, even when he’s been sidelined with injuries. But the big man has always backed it up.

It’s easy to see why fans have fallen in love with Embiid and why he’s returned that admiration. From the time he was drafted out of Kansas and his two subsequent missed seasons because of injury, this fan base has, by and large, had his back.

“I always feel like I have a good connection with the fans,” Embiid said. “It’s not just on the court, it’s also off the court. I appreciate them, definitely, and I think they appreciate me a lot, too, so we both have a mutual respect. I love it. 

“I envisioned myself being in this situation when I got to Philly. That’s the place I want to be for the rest of my career. I’m excited. We’ve got a great connection. I’ve got a lot of love for the city and a great connection with the Sixers.”

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This is fine — the Sixers' season is just crumbling before our eyes

This is fine — the Sixers' season is just crumbling before our eyes

Someone in the Sixers’ organization must’ve stepped on a broken mirror while walking under a ladder and petting a black cat.

This is fine.

We’re just watching the Sixers’ 2019-20 season crumble right before our eyes.

Some of this is horrendous luck. Some of this is of their own doing. In some cases, it’s a little of both.

Just a day after we found out Ben Simmons would be out for at least two weeks with nerve impingement in his lower back, Joel Embid was forced to leave Wednesday’s game in Cleveland with a shoulder sprain.

The team then went on to lose to a Cavs team that had won 16 games coming in, putting the Sixers at 9-21 on the road this season.

While we don’t know the full extent of Embiid’s injury, it doesn’t bode well. With Simmons already out, the Sixers need Embiid to be the dominant player that put up a career-high 49 points on Monday. If both players are on the shelf for an extended period, who knows how far this team could fall.

This is fine.

Thanks to the Miami Heat’s recent swoon, the Sixers remain just a half game out of the fourth spot with 23 games remaining. 

The fourth spot. The fourth spot.

This team was supposedly built for the playoffs and to conceivably win a championship. Their head coach boldly claimed he wanted the No. 1 seed. Instead, they may end up a fifth seed, meaning they’d start the playoffs on the road, where I’m sure their woes away from home will get sorted out — because that's the time you sort these things out, right?

Where’s the smash mouth offense and bully ball defense Brett Brown promised? The Sixers instead got smacked in the mouth away from the Wells Fargo Center yet again by a team playing out the string. 

This is fine.

The players who were supposed to complement Embiid and Simmons and pick up the slack for them when they were off the floor have not done so. The trio of Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford — that will make over $70 million combined this season — shot 12 of 35 Wednesday.

Second-year guard and 2018 second-round pick Shake Milton outplayed Harris and Richardson. Kyle O’Quinn, who makes the veteran minimum and hasn’t played meaningful minutes since Jan. 20, outplayed Horford. That can’t happen. That especially can’t happen when you’re missing your two All-Stars and playing the Cleveland Cavaliers.

In his first season here, Richardson has questioned his team's lack of effort, accountability and on Wednesday, its heart.

This is fine.

Maybe Embiid’s injury won’t be serious. Maybe Simmons’ absence won’t extend for too long beyond the two weeks. Maybe the five starters can figure it out and Harris, Richardson and Horford will be able to space the floor like GM Elton Brand thought they would. Maybe they can become a defensive bully yet.

Maybe.

"That still is my goal — keeping the boys in the boat, landing the plane, keeping our form, our health all that stuff — [keeping] our spirit the way that it needs to be," Brown said to reporters postgame. "We will move on from this. It’s a good thing we’re in the NBA. In 24 hours you’ve got a chance to move this aside and go try to find a way."

You figure the Sixers’ luck has to change at some point, but time is running out. This season is getting away from them.

This is fine.

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Josh Richardson thinks 'heart' is biggest thing Sixers must fix

Josh Richardson thinks 'heart' is biggest thing Sixers must fix

The Sixers, now 9-21 on the road this season after a 108-94 loss Wednesday night to the Cavaliers in which Joel Embiid sprained his left shoulder, clearly have many areas they need to address away from Wells Fargo Center.

But, when asked the biggest thing the team needs to correct before playing the Knicks on Thursday at home, Josh Richardson only needed one word.

“Heart,” he told reporters in Cleveland.

The 17-win Cavs shot 52.6 percent from the field and, at one point, had a 30-6 advantage in points in the paint. 

Shake Milton started again in place of Ben Simmons, who’s out with a nerve impingement in his lower back, and he was probably the Sixers’ best player, with a team-high 20 points, four rebounds, four assists and no turnovers.

Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson combined to shoot 12 for 35. Against a Cleveland team led by 21-year-old Collin Sexton (28 points), any one of those three players performing well in the absence of the Sixers’ two All-Stars might have been enough to help the team snap a six-game road losing streak.

“I think just our defense and just physicality was a C-minus,” Brett Brown said. “I think it was a C-minus. … I feel like when you don’t have Joel and you don’t have Ben, it’s an opportunity for others to put their hand[s] up and declare, ’This is who we are.’ And it is who we are, it’s who we have been. Tonight was not one of them. I really felt from that sort of physical standpoint, we were a C-minus.”

After the Sixers' last home loss, way back in December, Richardson had named effort as an issue. He’s been willing to call out concerns publicly in his first year with the team, and he initiated a players-only meeting earlier this month.

“I think it just starts with playing harder …  I think that’s a good problem to have to fix — there could be a lot worse things,” he’d said on Dec. 20. “I think if it starts there, then we’ll be working with something at that point.”

Good problems don’t exist anymore for the Sixers, who are fifth in the Eastern Conference with 23 regular-season games left and, just four games after the All-Star break, have seen both of their All-Stars suffer injuries.

Defensive execution and intensity have been common issues on the road, and they were exacerbated when Embiid left the game. 

“[Not] having such a big presence at the rim on defense to protect us whenever us guards make mistakes was kind of tough for us to deal with,” Milton said. “We didn't do a very good job of making the adjustments.”

Even when fully healthy, this was a team that often admitted they were still trying to figure things out and looking for answers. They didn’t have any without Embiid and Simmons in Cleveland. 

“I think it had a big impact,” Horford said of Embiid's injury. “Obviously we plan on playing through him and leaning on him a lot. Once he was out, I felt like we didn’t really know what next for our group.”

“Heart” is, of course, impossible to measure. The nagging, tangible concerns the Sixers do have —  injuries chief among them at the moment — are plenty to worry about by themselves. 

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