Joel Embiid’s chances of getting out of the second round for the first time in his career just took a massive blow. The Sixers big man is out indefinitely after suffering a right orbital fracture and mild concussion in the team’s series-clinching win over the Raptors on Thursday, the team announced. Embiid appeared to sustain the injury late in the fourth quarter of the victory, with Philly holding a 29-point lead. Already playing with a torn ligament in his right thumb, Embiid’s status for the Sixers’ series — which begins Monday — against the Heat is now unclear.
To put it bluntly, Philly is in trouble. In 44 minutes with James Harden on the floor without Embiid during the first round, the Sixers had a minus-6.8 net rating. And that was actually an improvement over how Philly performed in Harden’s solo minutes during the regular season, when the team had a minus-10.2 net rating. (For context, the league-worst Blazers had a minus-9.1 net rating. The Sixers with Harden and no Embiid played like a lottery team.)
The non-Embiid lineup Philly used now often in the first round consisted of Harden, Tobias Harris, Danny Green, Tyrese Maxey and Paul Reed. In 17 minutes of action, that group outscored the Raptors by 15 — that’s really good! That’s likely the lineup Doc Rivers will use to start, though the Sixers will have some options. Will the team get freaky and dare to go small? I wouldn’t be completely shocked to see Harden, Maxey, Harris, Green and Georges Niang together at some point if Rivers needs to really juice the offense. Defensive ace Matisse Thybulle played zero minutes at center during the regular season, but they could also be an option in some lineups if Rivers doesn’t want to turn to DeAndre Jordan, who hasn’t been used in the playoffs after struggling during much of his Philly stint.
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Thybulle at the center could help mitigate the spacing concerns of playing him alongside Reed or Jordan, though it would be a massive change in his role to ask him to start screening and diving for Harden. Though rebounding with that group would be an adventure, I would at least try it when Bam Adebayo is on the bench. If there’s good news, it’s that Harden is one of the few stars in the NBA capable of being a one-man band on offense. Give him a screener and some shooters and Harden has a history of making magic, even if that hasn’t happened for the Sixers so far.
The bad news is the Heat are not the team you want to start experimenting with offensively. Miami currently has the second-best defensive efficiency in the playoffs after thoroughly shutting down the Hawks in Round 1. Erik Spoelstra is in a much more advantageous position only having to gameplan for Harden and Maxey than trying to also solve for Embiid. It even allows the Heat more lineup flexibility after they found some offense with PJ Tucker at center in Round 1.
I don’t think the Sixers have a chance to win — the Heat have their own injury concerns with Kyle Lowry and Jimmy Butler — but the outlook is bleak. Harden hasn’t shown in a long time they can be the Houston version of himself who could isolate his team to an elite offense. At the same time, this is why Daryl Morey went out and acquired a second superstar. It’s a chance for Harden to prove they can still perform at an MVP level, and an opportunity for Maxey to build on the star potential he flashed in the first round. There’s a reason Embiid finished in the top three for MVP voting, however. Losing someone of his caliber is close to the worst possible scenario to begin a playoff series.
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