The Philadelphia 76ers appeared to be en route to a third straight blowout victory over the Washington Wizards on Monday night when they opened Game 4 of their first-round playoff series on an 18-8 run.
The complexion of the game—and perhaps the Sixers’ title hopes at large—changed shortly thereafter.
Wizards center Robin Lopez met Sixers All-Star center Joel Embiid at the rim on a layup attempt, and Embiid appeared to land hard on his back afterward. He proceeded to retreat to the locker room, and the Sixers ruled him out with right knee soreness during halftime.
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Embiid will be listed as “doubtful” for Game 5. He’s “expected to be evaluated further” after undergoing an MRI on his knee Tuesday.
If the injury forces Embiid to miss significant time beyond Game 5, it will all but end the Sixers’ title aspirations. Their championship odds jumped from +700 before Game 4 to +1000 on Tuesday, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, in large part because of how much they revolve around the big man on both ends of the floor.
Not only did the MVP finalist average a career-high 28.5 points on 51.3 percent shooting this season, but he also bailed the Sixers out time and again with his vastly improved mid-range shooting and ability to draw free throws. He’s the backbone of the Sixers’ offense, as he forces opponents into impossible decisions with no good answers.
The Wizards frequently double-teamed Embiid in the first two games of this series, and he found open teammates for easy buckets. They attempted more single coverage in Game 3, and he responded by scoring a playoff career-high 36 points in only 28 minutes.
“It was one-on-one, and I wanted to take advantage of it. I guess that’s on them to make that choice,” Embiid said after Game 3. “It’s hard to stop me if you send a double-team or not.”
Without their offensive fulcrum, the Sixers struggled to create as many open looks for themselves in Game 4.
Tobias Harris, who averaged 25.3 points on 57.1 percent shooting across the first three games of the series, finished with 21 points on 8-of-24 shooting Monday. All-Star point guard Ben Simmons finished with only five field-goal attempts, as foul trouble and the Wizards’ Hack-a-Ben strategy limited his offensive aggressiveness.
After shooting a scorching 17-of-33 from three-point range and 58.6 percent overall in Game 3, the Sixers’ shooters also fell back to earth. The starting lineup combined for only four made treys compared to 13 in Game 3, and the team finished 12-of-38 from deep.
Embiid’s absence loomed large over those struggles.
“Once Jo came out, I don’t think we were moving the ball as well,” Simmons told reporters after the game. “We weren’t playing team ball for a minute. And then also not getting stops, which is a huge part of our offense. We want to be able to push the ball, which hurts a little bit.”
Meanwhile, head coach Doc Rivers took issue with his team’s shot selection.
“I thought we had great matchups, we just overdribbled too much,” he said. “I thought we were offensively very impatient. I thought of the four games, this was the first game where each guy was trying to will the game for us. When you have 12 blocked shots, at some point you’re taking pretty bad shots. No one should have 12 blocked shots in a game, and they did. And a lot of that was shot selection for us tonight.”
As Danny Green was quick to note after the game, the Sixers have experience playing without Embiid. He missed 10 games in March and April after suffering a knee injury against the Wizards, and the Sixers went 7-3 over that stretch, including two wins over the New York Knicks and a 35-point rout of the San Antonio Spurs.
“It’s obviously not easy, and we’re gonna need him to be the last team standing, to win,” Green said Monday. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t win this series or the next game without him. Or other games without him.”
Embiid gives the Sixers far more margin for error. With him on the floor during the regular season, they outscored opponents by 13.0 points per 100 possessions, which was the fourth-best mark leaguewide among players who played at least 1,000 minutes. He’s an MVP finalist for a reason.
However, the Sixers have enough talent to close out the Wizards without him.
Although they’ll miss Embiid’s foul-drawing, Simmons and Harris can get the Wizards’ bigs in foul trouble by aggressively attacking the basket. Playing Daniel Gafford off the floor should tamp down the Wizards’ shot-blocking, and Simmons proved in Game 1 that he can dominate as a facilitator.
The bigger problems will come down the road, as the Atlanta Hawks won’t be a pushover in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Sixers need a healthy Embiid to stand any chance against the Brooklyn Nets or Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, too.
“Regardless of who’s on the floor or not, we’ve been able to win games with different lineups,” Green said Monday. “And tonight, I feel like we kind of panicked, we got beside ourselves and we kind of lost our identity. So we’ve just gotta get back to ourselves: move the ball, make the game simple, take the shots we have.”
That formula might be enough to get the Sixers past the Wizards even without Embiid, but their title chances depend on the big man coming back healthy in future rounds.