The story of Monday’s Game 4 loss to the Hawks is quite simple: Joel Embiid’s injury caught up to him in the biggest game of the Sixers postseason run so far and his team lost because of it.
While most of the attention has been on Embiid’s 0-for-12 from the field in the second half — the most attempts without a make in a playoff game over the past 25 years — it was pretty clear the big guy wasn’t right all game. He went back to the locker room for treatment in the first half and started the game 0-for-4 from the field.
He finished the game with 17 points, 21 rebounds, 4 assists, and didn’t record a single block or steal. The concerns being raised by Sixers fans shouldn’t be about his ability to make big time plays in big time moments, we’ve seen him do it throughout the year. But it’s completely fair to question how sustainable this Sixers nucleus is with an often injured Embiid.
The injury hasn’t affected him at all during the first three games against the Hawks. Going into last night, Embiid was averaging 35.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game in this series. At some point, the torn meniscus in his right knee was going to catch up to him, it just so happened to occur in a pivotal Game 4 that would’ve essentially decided the series had the Sixers won.
Embiid admitted that his game suffered due to the injury, stating in his post game press conference, “I thought in the beginning of the game, when I went back to the locker room, I just felt like I didn’t have it tonight.”
This team clearly has issues when they don’t have Embiid at 100%. The Sixers were 10-11 during the regular season without Joel and they’ve come apart in postseason games without him on the court. Their only loss in their first series against Washington was when Embiid initially hurt his knee, and while he didn’t leave the game last night, Embiid wasn’t himself and the rest of the team suffered because of it.
It felt like no one wanted to take control of the game on the Sixers side. Tobias Harris had a quiet 20 points, Ben Simmons had one shot attempt in the second half, Seth Curry started off hot but struggled to find his shot in the second half. Harris and Simmons are expected to mitigate Embiid’s absence whenever he’s unavailable or clearly hurt, like last night, but it never came to fruition in Game 4.
The offense looked disjointed in the half court, failing to put together any kind of rhythm. Doc was asked about this during his postgame presser, and he didn’t shy away from letting his team have it. “We went back to hero basketball. Everybody wanted to be the hero, instead of just trusting the team, trusting each other,” he said. “When you do that, you usually lose, especially when the other team outworks you the whole fucking game.”
The NBA is a star-driven league, there’s no denying that. Typically when your best player doesn’t play his best or misses games, the team as a whole will suffer. But what separates championship teams from mere contenders is their ability to step up even when their best player struggles.
You can put the bulk of the blame for this game on Embiid if you want. Knowing the competitors that he is, I’m sure he’s blaming himself for Game 4’s outcome as well. In a vacuum, yes, this game would have been won if Embiid played better. But where the real concern should lie is with the team’s inability to win a close game with their superstar clearly hampered with injury.
Obviously, the supporting cast can’t uplift their star on a nightly basis, or even every other game. But on the one night where Embiid needed his teammates the most, they couldn’t help him out.