Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers said after the team’s practice Saturday that he didn’t have any second thoughts about Joel Embiid being in the game when he suffered a right facial fracture and mild concussion from an elbow by Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam with 3:58 to go in Philadelphia’s blowout win in Game 6 of their first round series.
“Everyone was in there, and the other team had all their guys in, too,” Rivers told reporters.
“After Joel made the shot and did the airplane [the prior possession], if you watch the game, I turned and said, ‘I’m calling a timeout on the next possession.’ I’m not upset that he was in. You can make that a big deal if you want. But just go look at every team, and every game, and their guys are in until about the 4, 3-minute mark. That’s what it is.”
Embiid was originally called for a defensive foul on the play, only for Rivers to challenge it and the play to eventually be overturned. He then stayed on the bench for the remainder of the game, before the team announced Friday evening he would be out indefinitely with both the facial fracture and minor concussion he sustained on the play.
Now, Philadelphia is headed into its Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Miami Heat unsure of when it will get its superstar center back on the court – or if the 76ers will at all in that series.
“We are not going to be shy with playing different guys,” Rivers told reporters, in discussing how the 76ers will try to replace Embiid’s minutes. “I know you guys want to make a big deal about those first three minutes and whoever is announced in the starting lineup, it doesn’t matter to us. I’m just telling you that right now….we’re worried about the last six minutes. That’s going to be the key for us in this series.”
Second-year big man Paul Reed, who played sparingly in the regular season, impressed as Embiid’s understudy in the Toronto series. Veterans DeAndre Jordan and Paul Millsap also could see time, and Rivers even hinted rookie Charles Bassey, who played a total of 168 minutes this season and has been out recently with a shoulder injury, could see time against a Miami team featuring its own star center in Bam Adebayo.
“We may need all four guys, even if it’s to burn minutes,” Rivers said. “The one thing Miami is – if they’re nothing else they’re clever. They’re foul magnets. That’s a concern for us. Two reasons, they shoot free throws well, so we don’t want to play the whole series in the penalty. And No. 2, getting some of our guys in foul trouble.
No amount of planning, however, will make up for Embiid’s absence. A finalist for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award for a second consecutive season, Embiid has been the hub around which the 76ers have built their team at both ends of the court. While Philadelphia has a few other scoring options it can turn to in James Harden, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris to try to make up for some of Embiid’s massive production at that end of the court, it has no answers for how to make up for his loss in terms of defense and rebounding.
“Tough news to take, but we just as a group want him to get healthy and better, and whenever that is, we’ll be ready,” Harris said. “But at the end of the day, for us it’s a next man up mentality and just being locked in the game plan.
“We just got to figure it out. This has been a resilient group all year, so nothing has changed in that regard. We’ll prepare the same way and we’ll wait for big fella to get whatever he needs to get to where he needs to be.”
In 2018, Embiid immediately needed surgery when he suffered a left facial fracture and concussion when he collided with teammate Markelle Fultz, and missed three weeks, including Philadelphia’s first two playoff games that season – ironically against these same Miami Heat.
This time around, the team has yet to say if surgery will be needed, which gives some hope Embiid’s timeline for a return will be quicker. Still, with games being played every other day starting Monday in Miami, the 76ers are going to have to get through at least part of this series without him.
“We need him back at some point, but we don’t know when and we got to hold the fort,” Rivers said. “This is why we pay everybody, and this team has a great belief system. We’ve had a lot of stuff thrown at us this year with guys out, maybe this is another test in that.
We’re going nowhere, I can tell you that. This team will be ready when we get to Miami.”