Any efforts to distill why the Sixers won or lost a game these days often begin with Joel Embiid.
That is not unreasonable, especially after a Round 2, Game 4, series-leveling loss Monday to the Hawks in which the MVP runner-up was unquestionably well below his best physically, which is not unprecedented for someone playing his fourth high-intensity game on a small lateral meniscus tear in his right knee. He shot 0 for 12 from the floor in the second half.
Embiid’s final miss was a potential go-ahead layup with 8.8 seconds to go off of a pick-and-roll with Tobias Harris.
“Great look, I just didn’t have the lift,” he said. “I thought I got fouled, too, but usually I would go up, especially for a bucket like that, and try to dunk it — try to get fouled and get an and-one. But I just seemed to not be able to jump, for obvious reasons.”
Embiid opted against a detailed conversation about his health issues.
“I guess it’s already known,” he said. “I don’t need to explain myself anymore. Just try to do the best I can.”
And, to the question of whether his leaping ability being compromised played a role in his second-half shooting nightmare, he had little to add.
“There’s no excuses,” he said. “I’ve got to be better.”
In the dissection of these sorts of stinging losses — a vanished 18-point lead, a superstar known for his efficiency failing to make a single field goal after halftime, frustration and regrets prevalent in all corners — it’s tempting to assign blame and pass judgement on what precisely is and is not excusable.
As is the case with most things in basketball besides the make-or-make binary, there’s typically some nuance. For instance, we figure it’s fair to attribute a sizable chunk of the Sixers’ defeat to Embiid’s injured knee. He hadn’t shot so poorly all season, and both his words and common sense tell us he would’ve been more effective if everything was copacetic with his health.
“I can do better,” Embiid said. “I can always do better. As far as being 100 percent, I don’t think that’s going to happen until the year is actually over. I’ve just got to go out and manage it, just deal with it.”
For those who feel “inexcusable” is an apt description of the Sixers’ loss, it’s not difficult to craft a case.
Embiid’s jumpers were wayward and Danny Green was out with a right calf strain, yes, but none of the Sixers’ other three normal starters grabbed a hold of the game when it was sliding away. With an eight-point scoring burst early in the fourth quarter, Shake Milton was the Sixer who hinted at doing so.
Harris and Seth Curry were each scoreless in the final period. Ben Simmons posted three points on 1-for-1 shooting, one rebound and two assists in the second half.
“I definitely should’ve been more aggressive and attacked more,” Simmons said. “I think the spacing was a little off this game. We didn’t get to our spacing. We were’t as aggressive that second half.”
Simmons, a player whose game invites polarization, helped the Sixers establish a strong position by being near a first-half triple-double — eight points, 11 rebounds, seven assists — and committing no turnovers all game. And, though guarding Trae Young is a highly taxing job, it hurt the Sixers that Simmons was neither threatening nor impactful offensively after intermission.
A 1-for-5 night at the foul line matters in a one-possession game, too. Simmons, who made 67.1 percent of his free throws before the All-Star break, is now at 34.0 percent in these playoffs.
The Sixers understand Embiid’s availability and effectiveness dictate their ultimate postseason fate. That’s the core of who they’ve been this season.
And yet, a dominant Embiid display doesn’t guarantee victory and a bad Embiid shooting game doesn’t doom them to defeat. He’s at the heart of it all, but he doesn’t come close to controlling everything. In terms of the factors within their power, the Sixers created much of their own pain Monday.
“The shot we got Joel, I think we would take that shot all night,” Rivers said. “Whether you have it going or not, we would take that shot. That doesn’t mean you make them all. That was one of the few plays that I thought we executed extremely well. We got Joel right in his sweet spot and it didn’t go in. I can live with that play. I just couldn’t live with the way we played all game.”