By Norm Elrod
(CBS Philadelphia/CBS Local) — The NBA Playoffs continue tonight after an eventful weekend that included the Philadelphia 76ers’ Game One loss to the Brooklyn Nets. Fans might be feeling a little more anxiety than usual going into Game Two of the team’s opening-round series. Joel Embiid’s knee isn’t right, as anybody watching the first game could tell. Beset with distractions, the team doesn’t seem as focused as it needs to be. And the 76ers’ starting five, outside of Jimmy Butler, isn’t playing up to its potential as a unit.
The 76ers need a healthy Embiid to make a run this postseason. The 7-foot center, who averaged 27.5 points, 13.6 rebounds during the regular season, is the key component of this offense. But never mind the stats, just look at the attention he attracts, freeing up other playmakers. Just watch him roll downhill to the hoop to posterize another unsuspecting victim. Embiid is an unstoppable force. And the team is clearly better when he plays.
Embiid, who has been injury-prone throughout his career, only logged 24 minutes in the team’s 111-102 loss. While he put up 22 points and pulled down 15 rebounds, he didn’t look like himself. Of course, even a gimpy Embiid, with a heavily wrapped knee that limited his mobility and vertical, was better than no Embiid. His replacements — Boban Marjanovic, acquired with Tobias Harris, and Greg Monroe, recently signed from the Celtics — don’t pose nearly the same threat.
Embiid’s status stayed up in the air until Saturday afternoon, just minutes before tip-off. That diverted attention from the upstart Nets to the status of a star player. And the pregame distraction was just part of the story. Amir Johnson was caught on camera showing Embiid text messages on the bench. NBA rules don’t allow mobile devices on the bench, though Johnson was inactive for the game and purportedly tracking the well-being of his sick daughter. Still, the incident, for which Johnson was fined and later apologized, caused further distraction from the matter at hand.
The 76ers’s lack of focus showed on the court, for every player not named Jimmy Butler. The small forward contributed 36 points and nine rebounds. Embiid, who, as noted, appeared far from full strength, still gutted out a decent game on the stat sheet. The rest of the starting five — Ben Simmons, JJ Reddick and Tobias Harris — basically disappeared. The three players combined for 18 points on eight of 23 shooting.
The Sixers boast one of the top-five most productive starting units in the NBA, even if that didn’t show on Saturday. They’ll likely bounce back in the coming games, particularly if Embiid’s status becomes a little more clear. Arguably more concerning is the team’s bench, which doesn’t feature much firepower beyond Mike Scott. (Unsurprisingly, Scott also phoned in his Game One performance.)
The team relinquished most of its depth in securing Butler and Harris earlier in the season. The moves set them up to compete with the starting fives of other legitimate contenders come May and [fingers crossed] June. But playoff basketball is a faster game, played after a long season. A productive bench matters. And no offense to TJ McConnell, Marjanovic, and Jonathan Simmons, but this bench doesn’t seem up to the task.
The Nets bench, on the other hand, runs deep. Caris LeVert poured in 23 points in 23 minutes Saturday, and Spencer Dinwiddie added 18 points in 32 minutes. Five guys off the bench saw significant time in games one. And that’s fairly typical for the Nets, whose five primary backups all average at least 17 minutes per game. Brooklyn has the upper hand, if Philadelphia’s starting five can’t find its mojo in game two.
For all the hand-wringing, the 76ers are only down one game against a very beatable Nets team. And the Philly starting five, even with a limited Embiid, is talented enough to overwhelm the Nets and make bench scoring irrelevant. A win tonight changes the conversation entirely. They just need to get it done. Hopefully Saturday’s performance was a wake-up call.