Wizards

What Joel Embiid’s injury could mean for the 76ers-Hawks series

Wizards

Joel Embiid is the centerpiece of the Philadelphia 76ers, but he could miss some time in their second-round series vs. the Atlanta Hawks. Per Shams Charania of The Athletic, the small meniscus tear that Embiid suffered against Washington has him listed as ‘questionable’ for Game 1 on Sunday.

Wizards fans will remember that Embiid’s absence was a huge reason why the Sixers were not able to sweep Washington. Philadelphia lost Game 4 of that first-round series by a narrow 122-114 margin. Still, even without the services of Embiid in Game 5, the 76ers were able to win the series with a more comfortable 129-112 score.

As the 76ers look to their second-round matchup vs. Atlanta, Embiid’s health could prove to be the difference between a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals and an early vacation. Embiid is easily Philadelphia’s best player and an MVP candidate—his contributions on both ends of the floor are a major reason why the 76ers are a nightmare matchup for any team.

In his four games thus far in the postseason, Embiid has averaged 24.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg and 2.5 apg…in under 24 minutes per game. Take Embiid out of the equation, and Philadelphia’s core becomes shaky. They’d likely have to start former Wizard Dwight Howard down low, whose inconsistency could prove to be fatal. Howard has shot just 42.9% from the field so far in the 2021 playoffs, but can hold his own defensively. It’s late in games that the Howard-Embiid discrepancy could become apparent, as Atlanta could utilize a hack-a-Dwight strategy to force Howard to the line, where he shot just 57.6% this season.

 

Atlanta does not rely on inside scoring to power their offense. Trae Young’s heroics set the league ablaze in the Hawks’ first round series win over the Knicks. But that’s not to say that the likes of Clint Capela and John Collins could have the upperhand against an Embiid-less Sixers frontcourt.

Capela leads the Hawks thus far in the postseason with an attractive 13.4 rpg and 2.2 blocks, while Collins is a perpetual pick-and-roll threat and lob catcher. The athleticism of Collins and Capela are on par with Dwight Howard’s, but with Embiid potentially missing time in the series, the Hawks’ big men's jobs could be much easier.

The question that Philadelphia will have to answer in the second round, should Embiid miss time, is whether they’ll have performances similar to Game 4 or Game 5 vs. Washington. In Game 4, the team struggled without Embiid, getting out-rebounded, out-assisted and out-shot by a Washington team that was determined to extend the series. In Game 5, the Sixers turned the tide as they forced 15 turnovers while conceding just eight themselves.

‘The others’ got the job done for Philadelphia in the series-clinching Game 5, namely Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry (who dropped 30) and Dwight Howard, who was able to hit eight of his 10 free throws. Can Philadelphia expect All-Star performances by these guys again if Embiid misses more time? That would be a lofty expectation.

Washington was the fifth-worst defensive team in the postseason, while Atlanta is the second-best behind only Milwaukee. Atlanta poses a different threat to the 76ers than did the Wizards, namely perimeter defense and limiting points off turnovers—the Hawks lead the league with just 10.0 points off turnovers per game in the playoffs. Embiid is a top-3 defensive player in the NBA, so if he's out, Philadelphia’s defense could suffer at the hands of the Hawks.

Joel Embiid is the 76ers’ best defender, scorer and overall player. It’s no secret why he’s been an MVP candidate in each of the last three seasons or so. With him out, the Atlanta Hawks suddenly aren’t so frightened of their second-round foe. The Hawks already only allow 38.8 points in the paint this postseason, so offensively the 76ers would suffer without their superstar center. Will we see the Hawks advance to their first Conference Final since 2015, or will Philadelphia plug the hole left by a potentially injured Embiid? It’s cliché, but only time will tell.