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The Sixers And Joel Embiid Are Back Where They Always End Up

11:34 AM EDT on April 23, 2023

BROOKLYN, NY - APRIL 20: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers is helped up during Round One Game Three of the 2023 NBA Playoffs against the Brooklyn Nets on April 20, 2023 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Philadelphia 76ers wrapped up their first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday with a 96-88 win, which put the finishing touches on a 4–0 sweep. The series went pretty much how everyone expected it would, given how good the Sixers are and the fact that the Nets made the playoffs based on the early season contributions of two star players who are no longer on the team. The series also followed a predictable path in another, less comforting way: Joel Embiid got hurt.

Embiid didn't play in Game 4 because of what happened to him during Game 3, in which he scored 14 points in 38 minutes and spent most of the game creaking around the court and falling down awkwardly. Even in his hobbled state, Embiid was able to make a heroic, game-saving block near the end of regulation. That didn't stop the first bit of bad news from landing after Game 3 ended: Embiid had sprained his knee and would miss Game 4. After Philadelphia completed the sweep, the news got a little bit worse: It's not clear if Embiid will be ready to play when the next round starts.

"I just don't know," said Sixers head coach Doc Rivers when asked after Game 4 if Embiid will be ready to play in the conference semifinals. "I would say, right now, it's probably the same percentage I said before the game ... probably 50 percent, at best." You never want to see someone tack an ominous "at best" onto a declaration about how already unlikely something is to happen. Sixers fans would do well to start mentally preparing for their team to take the floor without its best player when the next round kicks off.

Those same fans should also prepare to spend the next few days rooting hard for the Atlanta Hawks. The Sixers will take on the winner of the Hawks-Celtics series, which Boston currently leads 2-1. If the Celtics go on to close out that series in five games, then it's likely that the Sixers and Celtics will begin their second-round series next Saturday. If the Hawks can win at least one game, though, and force the series to six games, the Sixers won't have to play again until next Monday.

God, that was a depressing paragraph to write. This is now the sixth-consecutive season that the Sixers have entered the playoffs near the top of the conference and as a perfectly sensible pick to make the NBA Finals. That they've never progressed beyond the second round in any of the previous five seasons is down to a lot of reasons, but fragility is right up there near the top of the list. Hell, we were in this exact same situation just a year ago, when Embiid caught an elbow to the face in the first round against Toronto and missed the first two games of the second round, and the Sixers were eventually eliminated in six games by the Heat.

Even if Embiid does manage to get healthy enough to play in time for the second round, you have to wonder what kind of playing shape he'll be in. There is maybe no player in the league whose quality fluctuates so wildly based on physical fitness. When Embiid is healthy and full of energy, he's the most dominant force in the league on both ends of the floor. When he's dealing with a nagging injury and a bit of fatigue, though, he spends large portions of the game moving around the floor like a stiff and falling down a lot. If the Sixers only have that version of Embiid to rely on against the Celtics, they could be facing yet another dispiriting second-round exit.

All of this sucks to think about, because the Sixers with a healthy Embiid taking on the Celtics has the potential to be the most entertaining series of the whole postseason. Maybe Embiid will recover much quicker than anyone anticipates and we'll still get the best version of that series, but if the Sixers have taught us anything over the last six seasons, it's to not get your hopes up.

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