PHILADELPHIA — The chants of “Boston sucks!” rained from on high in the fourth quarter in the Wells Fargo Center, and soon after, a worried crowd went home happy following a temporary reprieve in the 76ers’ 109-98 win over the Celtics on Thursday night.
But Philadelphia fans should be worried, if not petrified.
Joel Embiid’s freakish finger injury sent him to New York for surgery, and now he’s on the shelf for possibly two critical weeks. Usually, there are silver linings in these instances — particularly playing Ben Simmons at center at times on Thursday — but there’s nothing positive that can come from this Embiid-less stretch, especially if it halts roster reconstruction.
Embiid’s injury couldn’t have come at a worse time in what should be an honest period of reflection — but with Embiid, you have to operate with the belief an injury will occur sooner or later.
How the 76ers cope without their franchise center will be up for debate, but even if they outperform their current pace, how much will it matter when they have to go back to a style that best fits their best player?
If they struggle, it confirms Embiid’s value. If they turn this into opportunity, it’s not sustainable. It’s a lose-lose.
“With Joel, we know what we got,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said before the game, minutes prior to the news of Embiid’s surgery. “There’s no mystery to what we have and to the same point, what we need help with. We’ve seen enough basketball. We’re 38 games in. We’ve got to enough body of work where we might need some help here and things we all have to do a little bit better.”
They played faster and more random Thursday night, with Simmons being a disruptive force on defense, obscuring his obvious deficiencies with 19 points, nine rebounds and three assists. In moments, his versatility and effort was breathtaking, even Pippen-esque on defense.
The 76ers gained crucial ground on the Celtics and are one game from a season sweep, already owning a playoff tiebreaker should the teams end up with identical records.
The 76ers can gang up on the smaller Celtics, harassing Jaylen Brown and crowding the diminutive Kemba Walker for one more round. Walker started to figure things out after shooting 30 percent in the first two games, finishing 10-of-20 with five triples. But the 76ers feel their height and length can easily shut him down when it counts, while making life difficult enough for the Celtics wings, leaving them with no counter.
Embiid’s injury puts Al Horford in position to be what he came to Philadelphia for: big man insurance, although it doesn’t seem like the best allocation of $100 million in resources to be a replacement. But if Embiid isn’t right, the 76ers are relatively easy fodder in the postseason. There’s no substitute for him, hence Horford’s name being whispered in trade circles with the deadline a little less than a month away.
Should the 76ers make a personnel move in the coming weeks, it shouldn’t be perceived as a knee-jerk reaction to Embiid’s injury but an honest admission that the expensive roster built over the summer isn’t made for this game in this Eastern Conference.
Of the teams that fashion themselves as contenders in the East, Philadelphia lacks elite shot creators when the offense breaks down. Giannis Antetokounmpo can get his; Jimmy Butler, too. Victor Oladipo is on the way back, and Toronto will have Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam as a formidable duo pretty soon.
If Tobias Harris is the 76ers’ primary scorer late, even with a healthy Embiid on the floor, it doesn’t bode well when possessions slow down and teams take away what you do best. Harris seems best served as a safety valve and is miscast in a clutch role.
“I think the body of work has shown us what we are deficient at and what we have to get better at,” Brown said. “I’d like to think as the head coach, I can do my best to fix some of that.”
Simmons is the easy target, convenient to pick on here. It’s not that he isn’t immensely talented; he’s gifted.
But with the position he plays and the oxygen Embiid takes up on the floor — combined with Simmons’ well-known refusal to have a game outside of three feet — it’s hard to see a fit that complements Simmons’ skills and translates into the 76ers getting out of a competitive East.
Simmons gives the 76ers attributes they have enough of and comes up woefully short in what they desperately need. Essentially, they have three centers in the starting lineup when healthy and one happens to play point guard.
If there’s one contending team that can’t afford to have an allergic-to-shooting talent in its backcourt, it’s the 76ers. Truthfully, Simmons deserves his own show, a team that can be built around his unique talent and defensive effort, which can go overlooked due to his stubbornness.
It doesn’t seem like he can be his best self with this franchise, and he doesn’t feel compelled to improve the way his team needs him to, the way his talent demands he should.
It’s games like this that make it hard to part with him and even tougher for other teams to evaluate him. But if he plays his best with Embiid out and the floor is his oyster, it’s time to stop asking if the two giants can co-exist and perhaps the 76ers should get what they can for Simmons before a precious opportunity slips away.
The 76ers went all-in on this roster, committing nearly half a billion dollars in long-term salary.
As much as an about-face would look foolish in admitting error, an early and predictable playoff exit would hurt far more — which is where they’re headed if things don’t change.
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