Joel Embiid
Joel Embiid

The Philadelphia 76ers (25-12) were back in action on Friday night. It was the second leg of a back-to-back to begin the second half of their season. To wrap up the trip, they traveled to Washington, DC to take on the Wizards (14-21). The Sixers were looking to push their winning streak to four games. The Wizards were looking to get back on track after opening their second-half slate with a loss to the Grizzlies on Wednesday. The Sixers’ bench scored 56 more points to propel the team to victory, 127-101, on a somber night that saw Joel Embiid leave the game with a violent knee injury.

Before we get to the game, some notes.

Contextual Notes

Joel Embiid returned for the Sixers after completing the league’s health and safety protocol. Ben Simmons remained out, but is expected to return on Sunday against the Spurs. While Paul Reed, Isaiah Joe, and Rayjon Tucker are back from the G-League’s bubble in Orlando, where they lost in the Finals, they were not available for this game.

Doc Rivers started Seth Curry, Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

The Wizards were without Ish Smith, who is nursing a strained right quadriceps. Thomas Bryant was also absent as he rehabilitates a torn left ACL.

Scott Brooks started Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal, Garrison Matthews, Rui Hachimura, and Mo Wagner. 

First Half

You would have never guessed that Embiid hadn’t played basketball in nine days from the looks of the first quarter. He was his usual dominant force around the paint on the offensive side of the basketball. He also had a number of plays suggesting that his conditioning was unaffected by his lack of play in the last week. Embiid was agile enough to emphatically deflect a feeble attempt from Hachimura off the backboard and save a play at the rim.

On the other end, he was able to swing his body away from defenders and convert some tough finishes with power. Embiid’s range was not rusty, either. He connected on a number of jumpers, including a triple, from his usual spots. Through the first quarter, the Wizards had only outscored Embiid by five points. The leading candidate for MVP certainly set the tone for the group by coming out without any rust and establishing himself early in the contest.

Matisse Thybulle Is Keeping The Ball Alive

I was negligent of Thybulle’s efforts on the defensive end in my story from Thursday night’s game, but he provided much to write about on Friday. Thybulle’s length bothered Washington’s passing lanes, making the Wizards pay for lazy passes around the perimeter. One of Thybulle’s most valuable attributes is that he creates more live-ball than dead-ball deflections. Those live-ball deflections spark runout opportunities, whereas the dead balls allow the defense to settle. More valuable than that is that Thybulle creates those live-ball turnovers despite not always deflecting the ball towards the middle of the court. His length and motor allow him to pursue balls headed out of bounds, and he’s able to retrieve them more often than not and create something when it seems like nothing is there. 

The Extra Step

On the offensive end, Thybulle is certainly showing some encouraging signs. Of late, he’s becoming more confident taking the extra step at the rim to finish plays with dunks. Through the first season-and-a-half of his career, he would take off a step too early and leave layups to hang in the balance. Of course, the basketball gods always had those layups hit the back rim and pop off. That extra step is enabling him to go up with multiple defenders and still finish over them. We often talk about Thybulle’s jumper, but his ability to finish those plays once he becomes more proficient with back-cuts.

Of course, basketball is a team game. I would be remiss to ignore how impressive the Sixers’ defense has been in these first two games. To be fair, the combined records of their first two opponents is 30-40. But, the Sixers have been missing their best perimeter defender for each of the first two games. The rest of the team has done a terrific job picking up that slack. Communication has been present with rotations being synchronous, off-ball rotations have been crisp, and the effort and urgency have been tremendous. The individuals behind the defense are not reputed defenders by any stretch, but the sum of the parts has been outstanding. 

Second Half

Again, Sixers fans held their collective breaths after Embiid landed awkwardly after a dunk attempt midway through the third quarter. Embiid laid for a while, writhing in pain and clutching his left knee. He was able to walk off the court under his own power and go to the locker room.

“He’s in pretty good spirits, so let’s just hope for the best.”

But, unlike many situations in the past, he did not return to the floor. Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Embiid will undergo an MRI when the team returns to Philadelphia on Saturday and, right now, the injury is being termed a hyperextended knee. In the past, Embiid has been able to soothe the nerves of Sixers fans everywhere by returning to action just minutes after scary injuries. This time, he was not able to. So, the nerves will remain sensitive over the next 24 hours until there is more information as to the extent of the injury.

A somber Doc Rivers gave some insights into the situation following the victory. “I’m not going to speculate. Tomorrow we’ll know, we’ll have all the information for you. Hoping for the best,” Rivers said. “I did talk to him, he was in the locker room. He’s in pretty good spirits, so let’s just hope for the best.”

Tobias Harris offered similar sentiments. “It looked like a hyperextension and that’s what we’ll hope,” Harris said. “We just pray that he’ll be okay and be healthy tomorrow as he gets the MRI and, you know, we know how important Joel is to the team, how much emphasis he put on his health and his body this year, so it’s unfortunate to see that happen. So, just really praying he’ll be alright. 

“You got to get the win first and then you got to hope for the best afterwards.”

To the team’s credit, they remained focused on the task at hand despite the somber tone that had taken over the game. They pushed the Wizards to a 30-point deficit, and were able to keep them at multiple arm’s lengths for the entirety of the second half. 

To Rivers, the team couldn’t let the situation get the better of them. “Well, you have to [stay focused on the game],” Rivers said. “I’ve been through this before. You got to get the win first and then you got to hope for the best afterwards. I thought our guys did a pretty good job of focusing. Thought it took us a couple of minutes to get going. But once we did, I thought we took care of the game.”

The Sixers (26-12) will host the San Antonio Spurs (19-15) on Sunday. Tip-off is set for 6:30 PM EST. You can catch the game on NBA TV.

For now, everyone waits for news on Embiid’s knee. As Doc Rivers and Tobias Harris both echoed, you can only hope [and pray] for the best.