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I had anticipated a bunch of potential outcomes for Game Five last night, but I gotta say, wondering if I could morally justify turning it off in the third quarter to catch up on this season of Barry wasn’t one of them. Reports of Joel Embiid laboring his way through his pre-game routine were hardly encouraging, nor was Ben Simmons foregoing his customary gameday :snort: on Twitter. Any hopes that the latter was simply too locked in to remember his social media traditions were dashed by his start to the game -- two brutal turnovers followed by two facepalm whiffs at the rim -- while Embiid matched him with a couple bad misses and TOs of his own shortly after. It was a miracle that the Sixers still kept it close for a quarter, down 27-26 after one.
Said miraculousness was extremely short-lived, however, as the Raptors blew the lead out to double digits halfway through the second. Just about every possession of “we gotta score here” or “we need a stop here” was met with a wasted offensive trip and a defensive breakdown, with Embiid looking compromised and Simmons looking ineffectual. The lead was 21 at halftime, and there was no talking ourselves into the Sixers just needing to make shots, or the Raptors regressing to the mean. At that point, there was nothing left to do but brace ourselves for TNT’s inevitable recitation of the percentage of teams that go on to win the series after winning game five. (I’ll save you the exact number, but it isn’t low.)
Needless to say, it was a hugely disappointing outing from our two franchise co-anchors, one that can’t be repeated by either on Thursday for us to have a chance of staying in this series. Ben will certainly have a series of questions to face about his current limitations and his future ceiling after last night, but for Joel, the concerns really boil down to one big Q: What does the team do if he’s clearly unhealthy again before Game Six?
The answer of how to deal with a sick JoJo last night was handled fairly simply by the Sixers in the first half: They acted like nothing was wrong, giving him his usual number of minutes and post touches in the first half while the game was in reach. This quickly proved ill-advised -- pun not originally intended -- as Embiid lacked the power or finesse to do much against Marc Gasol down low, and he responded to the Raps sending extra men at him by just driving harder, usually leading to a turnover. He’s struggled against Gasol in this series at times even when healthy, but this was a different JoJo tonight, even from Game Four: Unlike on Sunday, when he made up for his lack of scoring with a team-high seven assists, he looked like he needed joystick recalibration on his passing tonight, often dishing in between two of his teammates, or hurling it five feet over their heads, ending with a postseason-high eight TOs.
Playing through Embiid when he’s so clearly unwell is pretty obviously not the answer at this point. But is it at the point where playing him at all is a mistake? That’s what the TNT Inside the NBA guys -- along with much of Twitter, no doubt -- suggested at halftime last night, saying Embiid was doing his squad no favors by zombieing his way through a game he was ill-equipped to dominate in usual fashion, and deflating the entire roster with his drudgery. Not that I’m particularly inclined to give credence to the wisdom of a bunch of commentators whose analysis is usually driven by statistical prejudices, personal grudges and boredom, but it is sorta undeniable that Joel’s flatness seemed to level the whole team in the second quarter, to the point where even J.J. Redick’s open looks seemed to have no chance of going in.
Still, it’s hard for me to buy that any percentage of Embiid isn’t still infinitely preferable to 100% of his backup options. It’s tempting to think maybe we could’ve sat him in Game Five to steal him a couple extra days of rest, while maybe the rest of our guys could’ve been galvanized to pull a Brooklyn Game Three in his absence. But this Toronto team isn’t Brooklyn: Even if you believe the Sixers to be the more talented team, the gap isn’t so enormous that we can weather sitting our best player, particularly when Simmons hasn’t exactly demonstrated himself capable of taking over in this series on his own. Maybe a couple extra rest days for Jo would’ve helped get him back on track, but maybe it wouldn’t have -- and anyway, you can’t just throw out games this late in the series in the hopes of increasing your future odds. And now that we’re officially in do-or-die territory, we definitely can’t win without Embiid.
Can we win with Embiid at a 65% max, though? I think so, as long as you acknowledge early on that he’s not going to be able to give you what he normally does, and adjust accordingly: as good as Brett Brown has been in this series, it’s a little disappointing that he didn’t have more of a gameplan for how to get the most out of a wheezing JoJo last night. Personally, I have a thought: I’d like to see him pick-and-pop with purpose. Get open looks beyond the three-point line and actually use them to launch. If I’m Brett, I’d really lay into him before Game Six about not just using the three-point line as a setup to his pump fake and drive, but as an actual shot that he can take and make (and is, y’know, worth one more than a two).
I think using Joel primarily as a rocket-launcher for Game Six could have a number of advantages for Philly. First of all, it’d involve the big man spending less energy banging in the post on offense -- so he could devote most of his limited physicality to defense, where his services are more urgently required. Second, it’d throw the Raptors offense off their game, get them scrambling and adjusting -- and eventually, if Joel made a couple, might open things up against them in the half-court for Simmons and Butler, as well as for Jo’s own preferred pump-fake and drive. Third, it’ll allow the team to cut down on their live-ball turnovers and get back on defense -- and maybe also battle for a couple extra possessions on long and/or high offensive rebounds. And fourth, goddamn would it get the Wells Fargo Center crowd roaring if he got into an outside shooting groove: As much fun as it is to watch Embiid dominate in the post, there’s something uniquely satisfying about watching him nail threes, like oh shit bet you didn’t know he could do this too.
Is it the best overall strategy to take one of the game’s most indomitable post players and park him at the three point line, where he shot 30% this year? Not generally, but if he’s under the weather yet again tomorrow night, it might be -- as long as he doesn’t take one or two out of tokenism, get frustrated if/when they don’t drop, and start unconvincingly pump-faking as he slowly shrinks and transforms into a corn cob. If he’s shooting with confidence -- on a shot that Toronto will gladly give him open looks at, particularly at first -- I do think enough of them will fall to stick with it. He’s done fine so far in this series, shooting 6-17 from deep, a rate that’s really only a couple ticks lower than his percentage so far from two-point territory (35% to 39%). If he does connect on a few, a world of possibilities will open up for Philly. And if not, well, at least he went down shooting, and not flailing wildly into Gasol’s flabby chest.
Losing Game Five in such a decisive manner was undoubtedly a huge blow for this team, particularly after letting Toronto escape with a split in Philly when the Sixers were in position to take both games. And obviously it’s extremely unfair to Joel and his teammates, to Brett and to us that we haven’t gotten to see our Process playing at full-strength this series, battling so many internal ailments that the fact that he was already supposed to be gimpy all postseason with his knee tendinitis seems all but forgotten at this point. It sucks, and it will lead to all sorts of questions this offseason about our medical staff, about load management, about giving JoJo control of the goddamn thermostat inside the locker room and practice facility. (It’ll also lead to a whole bunch of self-righteous yahoos attempting to play moralist and dietician with regards to his eating and self-care habits, which should give all of us ample practice with the mute button this summer.)
But the series isn’t over yet. The momentum swings have been downright nauseating in this matchup so far, but there’s certainly time for one more big one before all is said and done. I’ll admit I thought that whoever won Game Five would go on to win the series, but I’ve been wrong about plenty this postseason, so no reason to stop now. A win in Philly tomorrow night and the pressure is back on Toronto. At the very least, the Sixers gotta show more for the home crowd than they did north of the border last night. Hit ‘em with our best shot. Fire away, Jo.