Joel Embiid started Friday night in Washington, D.C., after having been sidelined following exposure to an individual who tested positive for COVID-19. Unfortunately for the Sixers, he was unable to finish the game.
He exited in the second half with what the Sixers are presently designating only as a “left knee injury” and did not return. The Sixers easily handled the Wizards, 127-101, moving to 26-12.
Ben Simmons, who was also exposed to the same person that tested positive, could rejoin the team as soon as Saturday. The Sixers have now won four consecutive games without Simmons.
The team’s next game will be its first with home fans since last March. As many as 3,100 fans will be allowed inside Wells Fargo Center Sunday when the Sixers play the Spurs.
Here are three observations on a Sixers win obviously overshadowed by questions about Embiid’s status:
With Simmons and Embiid required to quarantine away from the team, head coach Doc Rivers said his communication wasn’t too complex with the All-Star duo. He also acknowledged the situation was suboptimal.
“Just get healthy, stay healthy, stay in condition,” he said pregame. “Not much, really. Joel’s here and he hasn’t played a game, hasn’t had a practice in a week. It’ll be interesting to see how he performs tonight and how we perform with him. Obviously we’re going to throw him out there. Have to be very careful in watching him move and stuff like that. This is a tough one for everyone. Washington I think has three games in four days off of the break. We have back-to-backs, a bunch of teams have back-to-backs off of theAll-Star break. I’ve never seen that before and it’s not easy.”
That caution about Embiid’s health certainly came to mind with 6:20 remaining in the third quarter when the All-Star center’s left knee appeared to buckle as he landed after a dunk. Embiid seemed to be in significant pain but was able to gingerly go back into the locker room.
Embiid will undergo testing on his knee Saturday in Philadelphia, Rivers said after the game. Rivers said he talked to Embiid in the locker room and the big man was in "pretty good spirits."
“We want to get him home, let him see our doctors, and we'll let you know tomorrow," Rivers said.
As for his play before the injury, Embiid was excellent, exhibiting no rust in his first stint as he rose at the rim to block a Rui Hachimura layup and then converted a put-back layup on the ensuing possession. He also threw down a powerful dunk on Moe Wagner and a late-arriving Russell Westbrook, knocked down a fast-break three-pointer from the left wing and generally looked very sharp in scoring 10 points in the opening period.
Embiid’s success continued against Wagner, who was happy to hit the floor and try to draw more fouls on Embiid whenever he felt contact. Unbothered by Wagner’s approach, Embiid worked hard to get regular touches and, not surprisingly, scored efficiently when he received the ball. Washington’s double teams from the baseline didn’t trouble him much. In short, he played like the MVP favorite he was during the season’s first half.
Everything’s clicking for Thybulle
Like many promising young players, Matisse Thybulle has had flashes of brilliance and stretches where he’s seemed unsure of how to best use his skills. Both Brett Brown and Rivers talked about wanting to eliminate excessive “gambles” from Thybulle’s game.
It’s difficult to imagine a player having a much greater defensive impact than Thybulle has after the All-Star break, especially in first quarters. Thybulle leapt into passing lanes, snuffed out dribble handoffs and had three opening-period steals Friday, giving him seven over the last two nights.
Danny Green was the Sixers’ primary defender on Beal when he scored a career-high 60 points against them back on Jan. 6. The Sixers smartly switched things up, assigning Beal to Thybulle.
Beal (19 points) and Westbrook (25 points) didn’t receive a lot of offensive support. Davis Bertans, Washington’s main sharpshooter off the bench, exited in the second quarter with right calf tightness.
Thybulle wasn’t perfect, but this was another strong all-around outing. Offensively, he cut well and played without the hesitation that has occasionally disrupted the Sixers’ rhythm. Thybulle’s well above-average athleticism and instincts are tools that should help him as a straight-line driver and transition threat.
The good news for the Sixers is that they’ve turned in a couple of strong team performances after the break. Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz both scored 18 points off the bench. As a collective, the Sixers did just about everything well other than turn the ball over 11 times in the first half.
The team’s hopes of making a deep playoff run have always been contingent on Embiid’s health. We won’t speculate here on Embiid’s status, but the complexion of this Sixers season would clearly change dramatically if he’s unavailable for an extended period.
He didn’t have these specific circumstances in mind, but Rivers on Thursday spoke about the importance of his team stepping up when key players are unavailable.
“We talked about it yesterday, we talked about it this morning, about the importance of showing up to win games no matter who’s on the floor," he said. "What do we have, nine back-to-backs? The second half is tough. We told them guys are going to miss games. I can’t tell you who they are, but they are. It’s just going to be a tough ride, and we have to win games anyway, and the only way we’re going to do that is through accountability and being a team.”