The Philadelphia 76ers lost to the Dwyane Wade-led Miami Heat for the second time in two games last night. Wade wasn't the sole deciding factor in this one -- he did have 16 and 6, including the game-sealing dunk in the final minute, but he was also a -5 for the night -- but the Heat didn't really need him to be, as this one slipped away from Philly midway through the fourth, and the Sixers were unable to get stops against Miami late, as they were closed out by a 35-point Miami fourth quarter and lost 108-99.
There was plenty to be concerned about in this game, from Ben Simmons being shut down in the second half to Robert Covington not making a shot all game (0-10 FG, so much for Welcome Back) to the team's defense getting lit up from behind the arc (14-26 for Miami from deep). But really, if you watched this game as a Sixers fan, you probably left it with one thought overriding all others: Joel Embiid really needs a break.
For the third straight Sixers contest, The Process played what could be considered his weakest game of the season. Embiid scored just 17 on 5-18 (!!) shooting, and his offense wasn't even the most troubling part -- his defense was routinely exploited, as he proved an ineffective deterrent at the rim (zero blocks or steals), was plagued by foul trouble (limited him to just 28 minutes) and one game after being run ragged by Dwight Howard in Charlotte was beaten up all night by rival center Hassan Whiteside (26 points on 8-12 FG).
It's pretty clear at this point that Joel is not playing at 100%. Even his foul shooting, reliable all season, has begun badly receding -- just 58% over the last five games. He's not getting to the rim on post-ups, he's a step late on help assignments, even his trash-talking seems low-energy these days. And even though he protests that fatigue isn't a factor, it's getting more and more obvious that he needs a battery recharge pretty soon.
Which is fair! Embiid has played in 53 of a possible 64 games so far -- a 68-game pace on the season, which is beyond what any of us could have possibly predicted for JoJo at season's beginning, when it seemed like a blessing that he'd even be ready for opening night. He's also played every game since the All-Star break -- nine games in just 15 days. For a guy who'd essentially played in 40 competitive games over the course of the previous four years, the work load is fairly unprecedented, and it's far from shocking that he's starting to hit something of a wall.
The good news is that the Sixers are already all but guaranteed a playoff spot, and they have the luxury of starting to be able to pick and choose a little when they can steal JoJo a night off. A resounding 13 of the Sixers' final 18 games are against lottery-bound opponents, and though the team has four sets of back-to-backs remaining, they get at least one game in each of those sets where they should be able to rest Embiid and still be competitive (as previously pointed out by Derek Bodner of The Athletic.)
It may hurt their ability to compete for home-court advantage in the playoffs -- which, based on the team's home/road splits in 2018, will be no small thing -- but as shown in last night's game, if Embiid's not at full strength, Philly doesn't stand much of a chance against anyone anyway. They might want to start Sunday night against the Nets, in the final matchup of the team's four-game road trip. Let Richaun Holmes duke it out with Jahlil Okafor for the night, and get JoJo raring to steal Victor Oladipo's Lunchables against the Pacers next Tuesday.