MIAMI — When Joel Embiid subs out of a game, the question of when he’ll return is almost always front of mind.
How many minutes of rest can Sixers head coach Doc Rivers buy? Can the team hold up without its superstar?
None of that was on the radar in the fourth quarter Tuesday night at FTX Arena. Embiid walked to the end of the Sixers’ bench and sat next to Paul Millsap with 10:38 remaining and the Sixers behind by 24 points. His night was done and the final margin of the Game 5 loss was ultimately 35. The Sixers must win Thursday to force a Game 7 back in Miami.
Embiid played his third straight game with a protective mask after suffering a right orbital fracture and concussion in the Sixers’ Round 1, Game 6 win over the Raptors. In the middle of the second quarter, it was fair enough to wonder whether the mask had done its intended job.
After making two free throws to draw the Sixers within nine points, Embiid lost out on a rebound and stayed on the floor, face in his hands, well after Victor Oladipo laid in the loose ball. On TNT’s replays, it appeared Dewayne Dedmon pushed the ball into Embiid’s mask. The officials called a technical foul on the infuriated Rivers, though they let Embiid vent after he got up.
“I don’t exactly know what happened,” Embiid said, “but I just felt something to my face, in that area. Pretty painful, but it’s whatever.”
Embiid has not been given the impression that he’s at risk of severely aggravating any of his injuries. He cleared the NBA's concussion protocol ahead of Game 3 and has also been playing through a torn ligament in his right thumb.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “Obviously I’m not a specialist. I’m just listening to the doctors. I don’t think so, so it’s just about pain tolerance. This is a lose-lose situation for me. If I don’t play, I’ll probably get called soft. If I play and I play bad, probably come up with a bunch of stuff … ‘I guess he’s just not good enough.’ So it’s all about just trying to not get too high or too low, just going out there and really trying to dig very deep and do whatever I can.”
The numbers would’ve been shinier without so much garbage time, but Embiid posted 17 points on 7-for-12 shooting and five rebounds. James Harden was the Sixers’ No. 2 scorer with 14 points on 5-for-13 shooting.
As a team, the Sixers did little well. With a 9-for-32 three-point performance, they improved their long-range shooting in Miami this series to 24 percent.
Their cornerstone center is far below 100 percent physically, and he was candid about that unfortunate reality being largely outside of his control.
“I thought coming in, I had the right mindset,” Embiid said. “I had the right mindset about what I wanted to accomplish as far as myself and the team to try to get the win. There’s a lot going on. Sometimes your body and whatever is going on, as you know, it just won’t allow you to be yourself. In those moments, you’ve just got to keep pushing, hope for the best. At this point, it’s all about just being there, and just keep pushing.”
Asked specific questions about his conditioning and the extent to which the mask was impacting his outside shot, Embiid didn’t see the purpose in a detailed response.
“At this point, those questions are good, but if I say that I’m feeling a certain way, it’s probably looked at as excuses,” he said. “If I don’t say anything, it’s probably looked at as, 'He must be fine.' I don’t have an answer. … I’m really just pushing through it.”
Though it wasn’t directly pertinent to the Sixers’ dismal Tuesday night, Embiid was also asked about MVP voting. The topic was a reasonable one given ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski’s report Monday that Embiid finished behind Nikola Jokic for a second consecutive year.
While that result isn’t yet official, Embiid and the Sixers essentially treated it as such. Embiid used the moment to name The Ringer’s Bill Simmons as the sort of person that should not have a vote on awards with high-stakes financial implications.
“This is something that I knew weeks ago,” Embiid said, “even probably two weeks before the season ended after those games against … Denver and Milwaukee. And when (ESPN’s Tim Bontemps) did his straw poll or whatever, I just knew it wasn’t going to happen. Obviously, congrats to Nikola. He deserved it. He had an amazing season. There’s no right or wrong. There were a lot of candidates; it could’ve gone either way with Giannis (Antetokounmpo), Devin Booker — being on the best team in the league by far. So I guess every year it’s all about whatever you (reporters) decide, whatever fits the narrative as far as who’s going to win.
“But to me, the only thing I’ll say about these awards is … I don’t know how to explain it, but I go back to what I heard on a podcast with (The Ringer’s) Bill Simmons sounding like he had a grudge against somebody, saying, ‘F Jalen Green.’ If we’re going to allow these type of people to vote on these awards, that’s not fair. What if Jalen Green is in a position to earn a supermax (contract) or an All-Star appearance, and you’ve got someone sounding like that? And he has a lot of power. He can sway a lot of other media members, and you’ve got someone saying that type of stuff. I don’t think it’s fair. I don’t think it’s OK.
“So that’s really the only thing I’ll say about those awards. I’m not mad. That’s two years in a row I put myself in that position. It didn’t happen. It’s almost like at this point, it’s whatever. Whatever happens, happens. Last year I campaigned about it. This year I answered questions when asked, and the next few years until I retire, it’s almost like … I don’t know. Like I said, I don’t know what else I have to do to win it. To me, at this point it’s whatever. It’s all about focusing — not that I wasn’t focused on the bigger picture — but it’s really trying to put all my energy into the bigger picture, which is to win the whole thing.”
That aspiration looks quite tenuous for this season after Tuesday.
But, even with Embiid’s health clearly several rungs below optimal, it does remain on the table.