After an MRI on Joel Embiid’s right knee warranted further testing, the big fella is listed as ‘doubtful’ for tonight’s Game 5 against the Wizards. It’s safe to assume he won’t be suiting up as the Sixers try to close out the series in front of a fully-packed Wells Fargo Center, and they’ll have their hands full with an opponent that believes they have new life with Joel sidelined.
Finishing off Washington in these final three games shouldn’t be a problem even without Embiid (though it may take an extra game or two). The Sixers are ultimately the more talented roster, two of the three games come at home where the team boasts a jarringly strong record, and in all reality the Wizards don’t have the bunch to string together four consecutive strong performances (something they’ll need to do here).
Nonetheless, without Joel the possibility of blowing the first 3-0 lead in NBA history does exist—however remote. Doc Rivers and company have their work cut out for them in terms of solving the center puzzle in Embiid’s absence, and while their options are limited, they have three games to find the combination that works.
Wizards center Daniel Gafford has been a problem in this series whenever Embiid is off the floor, and Doc ought to be concerned with matching the length and bounce that he brings to the game. His offensive and defensive ratings in this series are the best marks on the team, with the Wizards boasting a +54 net rating when he’s on the floor. He also paces them with 8 blocks and 13 offensive boards on the series—proof of his impact on the glass and above the rim.
I had anticipated Gafford being a potential matchup problem in this series, and without Embiid on the floor that’ll continue to be the case. Finding a way to counter his impact will go a long way in suring up this series before it gets out of hand.
While Dwight Howard has been mostly bad in these playoffs, he’s the obvious next man up here. He’ll play as long and as much as he can avoid foul trouble, and in a perfect world that would be around 30 minutes a night, leaving Doc to figure out the other 18 or so. But where else can he turn?
Despite a poor outing in Game 4, Mike Scott will get another crack here, though I expect him to be limited to short bursts (think 8-12 minutes total). He’s been bad all season long, but as the most experienced big left on the roster we can’t afford to bury him on the bench now. He still provides gravity as a shooter (despite his shots rarely falling), and at 230-240 lbs. he won’t get pushed around inside as much as Paul Reed, for example.
As for Paul Reed, while I’m fearful of playing an inexperienced rookie in the playoffs—he’ll get pushed around and routinely blow assignments, just like he did in the regular season—I don’t see there being much of choice here given the need to match the length and bounce of Gafford. None of the other bigs on this roster (Dwight aside) can defend above the rim or work the glass like Reed, and for that reason he’ll be given an opportunity to supplement Howard in Game 5 (just don’t don’t expect his leash to be long).
Beyond that, Doc could turn to 36-year old Anthony Tolliver, who provides a similar skillset to Scott, but there’s no real appeal there. Gary Clark is a versatile and strong defensive player who is somewhat of a wing/big tweener, and if the Sixers chose to lean into small lineups without Joel then having Clark’s size out there would make a lot of sense—he can defend a few positions and make a difference as a weakside defender if need be. Obviously these are “break glass in case of emergency” options, but if Embiid misses time then it’ll be all-hands-on-deck until he returns.
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