Even Doc Rivers had to chuckle as he walked over to the contingent of reporters watching the end of Sunday’s practice. Every single one had a smart phone drawn, documenting what was going on on the team’s practice-facility court in Camden, New Jersey.
After the occasional grainy, Zapruder-like footage of Joel Embiid emerged when the team opened practices to the media this week, there was the big man, as clear as could be, participating in a light shooting drill:
April 30, 2023
Rivers’ messaging in previous days had basically echoed the information from early in the week. Embiid had been unable to do anything in practice. But, Sunday served as a small step in the right direction.
“He did a little bit more, not much. He didn’t do any running or anything like that, he just did some shooting and stuff,” the head coach provided.
Rivers cautioned about reading deeply into a sighting at practice. That is, he didn’t want people taking too much stock in Embiid getting up shots from his favorite spots for all to see.
“There’s been optimism all along. But, there’s also, really, you got to be realistic. And, I just don’t know. He’s improving daily. And that’s good for us.”
Embiid is officially listed as ‘doubtful’ for Monday’s Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Celtics in Boston due to a sprained right knee.
Everyone else is healthy, Rivers only noting that Danuel House Jr. practiced through a back issue on Sunday but is fine.
The Sixers, as an organization, have cast about as much doubt about Embiid’s availability for at least the first game of this series as possible.
James Harden only added to that doubt on Sunday.
“We were hoping to get enough time for big fella to get back and ready for Game 1. But, a little adversity, just be ready to go out there and play well for Game 1,” the star point guard said. “Get off to a really good start and just give them four quarters of toughness on both ends of the ball.
Still, there is a trail to follow for those who are skeptical of whether Embiid will actually miss the first game of this series.
First, the early reporting from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne indicated that it was a one-week injury, even suggesting that there was optimism that Embiid could play again in the first round if it became necessary. Since the initial reports, updates from Shelburne and FanDuel’s Shams Charania dismissed the severity of the injury.
Then, there was reserve guard Shake Milton more than implying that Embiid would be able to play in Game 1 after Thursday’s practice.
Embiid was scheduled to meet with doctors on Thursday to examine the ailing knee, and, according to Kyle Neubeck of PhillyVoice.com, that visit did not unearth new causes for concern.
But, the tone changed on Saturday, Rivers telling reporters that Embiid wasn’t able to participate in practice. “Obviously, we were hopeful for today,” Rivers added.
Just a few hours later, Philadelphia native Jason Dumas cast more doubt, offering that it would be “a pleasant surprise” if the MVP-favorite big man played in either of the first two games in Boston and that he was still experiencing significant pain in the ailing knee. Dumas added that the injury typically follows a four-to-six-week recovery period.
Charania added something similar later in the evening, indicating that the injury was more serious than previously estimated.
The conversations I’ve had suggest that the Sixers would indicate that Embiid’s injury would follow such a timeline if the information they have recommended so. Furthermore, the notion that it’s a strict timeline assumes all cases are the same. What is true for the average human might not be true for a world-class athlete.
And then, there Embiid was on Sunday. He was on his feet for at least as long as the doors were open to media after practice. There was nothing visibly bulky around his right knee to suggest that he was wearing a brace.
And still, no one has gone as far as to say that Embiid will definitely miss Monday’s Game 1.
Those inclined to dismiss the series’ subplot might say that all updates have hedged. They’ve leaned towards Embiid being unavailable, but have kept the door open to the possibility that he could play. And after days of increased pessimism, perhaps one of the most positive visual signs you could ask for pops up on the day before the game.
Beyond that, there has been disconnect in some of the finer details of what is being said publicly. Harden stated that he thought Sunday was the first time Embiid had been able to shoot. Yet, Rivers indicated a few days ago that Embiid was able to do some shooting during those days’ practices.
The “he said, she said” of this situation aside, certainty is difficult to come by because sprains aren’t linear in their healing processes. Day two might see a step forward, and day three might see two steps backward. All you can do is manage the pain as it comes and goes, doing what you can to rehab the ligament and keep it loose.
Embiid was listed as ‘out’ the day before Game 3 of last season’s second-round series against the Miami Heat. A day later — just 90 minutes before tip-off of Game 3 — Embiid was listed as ‘doubtful’. He was in the starting lineup for that game.
There is a notable difference, though. Embiid was dealing with a sprained right thumb and a facial fracture. Those are not the same as a sprained knee. The point is that this wouldn’t be the first time Embiid suited up for a playoff game despite a discouraging injury status in the hours leading up to tip-off.
There will be clarity at least 30 minutes before Monday’s tip-off. For now, all we can say is that he was visible at practice on Sunday before boarding the plane for the team’s flight to Boston.
In the meantime, Embiid has taken on a more vocal role while sidelined during practice, asking questions during walkthroughs. “It’s always tough when you’re not on the floor, though,” Rivers said. He pointed to blue seats on the sideline opposite from where reporters were gathered, saying, “People don’t hear you from them.”
If Embiid isn’t available for Game 1 or beyond, Philadelphia’s offensive attack will be redirected through Harden. The Sixers’ lead ball-handler knows that whatever he does, he has to turn the dial up a notch. “Be more aggressive, for sure. Be more aggressive, we got to generate points. So, get to the basket, shoot my shots. Just be more aggressive,” Harden said on Sunday.
There is understandably significant pessimism that the Sixers can weather the storm without Embiid. Harden’s play in the first-round sweep of the Brooklyn Nets didn’t exactly inspire confidence that he was ready to be a legitimate co-star in a series against the vaunted Celtics. The bearded guy shot 26 percent on twos in the four-game series. Even worse, he shot 22 percent on attempts inside of 14 feet.
Harden explained the bizarre struggle as a product of a sudden change in mindset.
“Just going from not really having a usage rate that I’m used to. And then, in one game, having to turn it on and be aggressive, get to the basket,” he said. “So, it was just different for me. But, this week or how ever long we had prepared me for that. So now, I’m ready for it.”
Operating under the assumption that Harden is referring to Game 4, that explanation doesn’t resolve why he struggled mightily around the rim in the first three games of the series.
Make what you want of that explanation for the dismal two-point shooting. But, Harden insisted that the achilles discomfort that he previously mentioned had been bothering him intermittently for months was not at play. “I’m good, that’s not even a problem,” he said.
As for the team’s preparation for what they’re about to face, Rivers was as content with his group following the final rehearsal as he could possibly be. He was especially happy with the team’s focus and involvement during the week of practice.
“Everyone’s looked good. It’s tough to judge how anyone’s looked. Everyone looks good. We haven’t had a lot of live. We did probably two-and-a-half days of live action, like real live-action,” the head coach said. “And [Harden] looked great. He really did. I think we’re as sharp as we can be, honestly, with not having played in eight, nine days. It’s hard to judge when you’re playing against yourself.”
There won’t be much more playing against themselves. The Sixers are about to start a new battle. And Harden realizes that he has to take his game to a different level. Different from what it was in the first round, different from what it is within the walls of the team’s training complex during their intra-squad scrimmages.
“For me, this whole year has been like the playmaker role of James Harden. To sacrifice, to not really scoring, and all that good stuff. And then it’s like, ‘Alright, I got to turn the switch on and be a little bit more aggressive.’ Not only just scoring the basketball, but getting into the paint and generating really good shots for our team because that’s what’s going to help us,” Harden offered. “So, all that said, it’s just going out there and reading the game of basketball, playing on my basketball instincts. Just going out there and hooping.”
While Harden is aware of the offensive load he’s going to have to carry if Embiid is unavailable, he’s not neglecting the importance of the defensive side of the ball. “Making it difficult for everybody. We can’t just say ‘Tatum and Brown’ because they got some really good role players, as well. So, it’s going to have to be a really good game for us,” he said.
Still, he’s realistic, especially about the team’s defensive prowess if the big guy can’t play. He knows the Sixers will be waiting for Embiid with open arms if he isn’t able to suit up immediately.
“We communicate often, especially these last few days. As far as him and how he feels and things like that, and, I mean, I think today was his first time shooting. So, it’s up to Joel. It’s up to him when his body feels like he’s ready to come back,” Harden said.
“Or, if his body isn’t feeling all the way 100 percent, he’s still like, ‘I’m gonna go out there and hoop and try to figure it out.’ So, that’s all on him. I don’t think anybody in the world can have that mindset other than Joel Embiid.”