Joel Embiid warming up

Sixers star center and MVP finalist Joel Embiid has a right orbital fracture and mild concussion, a team official confirmed on Friday night. The Athletic‘s Shams Charania was first to report the injury. The Sixers say Embiid is out indefinitely and that updates will be provided as appropriate.

The injury occurred towards the end of Philadelphia’s Game-6 victory over the Raptors, when Toronto forward Pascal Siakam delivered an elbow to Embiid’s face on a drive to the basket:

First, the obvious. This is an absolutely brutal development for an already-injured Embiid. He showed a lot of character in demolishing a lengthy, athletic Raptors team in a close-out game. Embiid silenced the talking heads chirping about the possibility of the Sixers blowing a 3-0 series lead and Embiid lacking toughness as he pouted his way through an awful Game-5 loss that gave the Raptors life. He was going to be rewarded for the effort with another appearance in the second round. It was going to be a personal battle with the Miami Heat and former teammate Jimmy Butler. 

The Heat are a much better team than the Raptors are. Bam Adebayo is better than all the bigs Toronto rostered, combined. Beyond Adebayo, the less lengthy and athletic Heat profile as an easier matchup for Embiid. They would still probably throw extra pressure his way because no one man is going to silence this version of Embiid for an entire best-of-7 series. But, Embiid wasn’t going to have to work as hard to beat that added pressure because of the lack of adequate size beyond Adebayo.

No one is hurting in the face of his unavailability more than Embiid is right now. But the whole team behind him obviously suffers, too. You pour your blood, sweat, and tears into an 82-game season to set yourself up as well as possible for the playoffs. You get through a round. Then, all of it is potentially rendered meaningless as you start the next round punching upwards because your best player is out with a fractured face, of all things.

It’s easy to get a distorted picture of the situation as you sift through fan reaction and the flow of information on social media in the immediate aftermath of the injury. I don’t know that Siakam intentionally elbowed Embiid in the face with enough force to break a bone. Although, it’s just as easy to accuse a competitive athlete in the throes of an embarrassing loss of adding a touch of malignance to an act that usually doesn’t result in a broken bone.

I don’t blame Doc Rivers for not having taken Embiid out of the game already, with the lead pushing 30 points with 5 minutes left. Rivers has been the butt of jokes about blown playoff leads over the years, with the Sixers most recently blowing leads of 18 and 26 points in Games 4 and 5, respectively, of last season’s second-round upset loss to the Hawks.

Rivers also spent much of his post-practice media availability the day before Game 6 defending the narrative about his blown leads. So, he likely saw his team pummeling a difficult opponent and had flashbacks to previous wasted opportunities. Those exact sentiment, by the way, were the foundation of the fanbase’s concern about the team’s chances of advancing even with a 3-2 series lead. Rivers wanted to make sure that the series ended on a high note and that there were no blown leads to discuss. So, he tried to squeak out some extra time before pulling his starters. That’s reasonable. Unfortunately for him and his team, the unlikely happened.

The reality is that the injury occurred in a Game 6 that never should’ve happened. Philadelphia had ample opportunities to close the series in Games 4 and 5. In Game 4, they trailed by 3 heading into the fourth quarter and lost by 8. In Game 5, they never showed up. Embiid’s uninspiring effort was front and center as Toronto got whatever they wanted at the rim to force Game 6.

Sure, Embiid suffered the thumb injury in Game 3. But, he also dominated the second half of that game and ate the Raptors alive in Game 6. He could’ve taken charge and closed out the series in either of those 2 games. The Sixers are certainly thankful that they closed the series out in Game 6. If it had to go to a Game 7 without Embiid, they would’ve been in line for some ugly history.

Of course, the injury isn’t his fault. It’s not all his fault that the series had to go 6 games, either. The entire team took its foot off the gas and allowed it to get to that point. The thing is that the operating assumption is that Siakam or another Raptor wouldn’t have made a similar play if they felt Games 4 or 5 slipping away. I can’t say with certainty that they’re a dirty bunch. But I don’t know that they aren’t, either. Both their fans and local media seem to encourage dirty plays, though. 

You could also point to officiating. The lack of whistles set a precedence by allowing Siakam to toss elbows all series long. Perhaps if he had been whistled for using his arms prior to that fateful swing, Siakam wouldn’t have delivered the blow on that play. It should be mentioned, by the way, that the officials initially whistled Embiid for a foul on the play. They overturned it upon review.

Ultimately, there’s no purpose in harping on the events surrounding the injury. Now, the expectation for the near future is all that matters. Embiid suffered a fractured orbital bone on the other side of his face back in 2018 when he ran into Markelle Fultz’s shoulder in a game against the Knicks. Embiid missed the final 8 regular season games of 2018 and the first 2 games of the Sixers’ first-round series against the Heat. That absence totaled 20 calendar days. 

The wild card, though, was surgery. Embiid needed surgery to repair that fracture. But according to Kyle Neubeck of PhillyVoice and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN, there is optimism that Embiid will not need surgery this time. Not that either need confirmation, but this reporter heard similar sentiments, as well. 

For now, we definitely know that Embiid must miss at least 5 days in observation of the concussion. That means he will definitely miss Game 1 in Miami. Having observed Embiid from afar since 2016 and covered him for 2 years, he is one to passively mention injuries instead of harping on them. The Sixers have their group of staff involved in deciding whether Embiid will be available. But, he is sensitive to missing unnecessary time given that he missed the first 2 years of his career. Embiid also does not take kindly to the narratives regarding his health and how they adversely affect the way he’s viewed around the league. 

He will undoubtedly fight to get back on the court as soon as he clears the league’s concussion protocol. The things that stand in his way are how the injury heals over the next few days and how the series is shaping up without him playing. If the Sixers are down 3-0 by the time he can reasonably return, you probably won’t see him until training camp. If the Sixers sneak a win in Game 1, that might buy him some time for a Game 3 return. My completely unsourced and uneducated guess is that he makes a hard push to play in Game 2. Whether he actually will play is a different story.

The other factor we have to consider is physical conditioning. Embiid’s lungs may take a hit if he can’t do anything to stay active during this down time. In that case, his production and ability to be effective may be impacted even if he does return.

Bottom line: Embiid was showing up a nasty Raptors crowd to cap off a dominant night on their floor. That’s something that countless athletes have done over decades of professional sports. They haven’t all gotten hurt. It’s an unfortunate, unlikely injury for him and the Sixers. But, they allowed themselves to get to a Game 6 to begin with. Now, someone has to step up to hold down the fort until Embiid can realistically get out there with his teammates. James Harden can do much in the way of earning the maximum value on his contract extension if he steps up. But, it’ll take more than just him to keep the team afloat in Embiid’s absence.