By CBS3 Staff

PHILADELPHIA (CBS/AP) — One day after Dwight Howard said he expects Joel Embiid to play, the Sixers said Saturday their All-Star big man is questionable for Sunday’s Game 1 against the Atlanta Hawks.

Embiid’s official status for the Sixers’ second-round series opener is questionable because of a cartilage tear in his right knee.

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The 27-year-old Embiid averaged 28.5 points and 10.6 rebounds this season. He scored a postseason career-high 36 points in 28 minutes in a 29-point win for the Sixers in Game 3 over Washington.

Embiid took a hard fall in Game 4 on Monday. He winced and put his hand on his lower right back and missed the series clincher two days later. He’s been treated with physical therapy.

The Sixers may make the Hawks wait until the last moment to reveal Embiid’s status.

On Friday, Dwight Howard gushed over his first year in Philadelphia, a train-of-thought review on his favorite cheesesteak spot and the dairy dessert the Sixers give away at home games, and he even hummed a few bars to the team’s theme song. But when the topic turned to Embiid, Howard’s belief that the injured big man can play in Game 1 brought the laughter to a halt.

“He should be ready to go,” Howard said.

Wait a minute, is the backup center — and one of the top rebounders in NBA history — really breaking news on Embiid’s status for Sunday’s game against the Hawks. Pressed for the scoop that Embiid actually will play, Howard suddenly backtracked on his breaking news update.

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“Oh, nooooooo, you didn’t hear me say that one,” Howard said. “I expect him to be great when he plays. That’s all.”

The top-seeded Sixers could get past Trae Young and the Hawks even without a healthy Embiid, but the Sixers’ serious push for their first championship since 1983 starts and ends with the health of their MVP candidate.

Embiid could slap on a knee brace and push through the injury, and there are signs he might try to play this series. He did not participate in live drills during practice this week but did shoot. He made a surprise appearance during Game 5 warmups and shot jumpers around the perimeter, fadeaways, even some free throws — all without any sort of noticeable knee brace under his white leggings.

With Embiid, the Sixers are legitimate contenders to win it all.

Without him, the Sixers need every ounce of effort from Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Seth Curry to push past the fifth-seeded Hawks. The Sixers started Matisse Thybulle and moved Simmons to center against the Wizards.

“I think we’ve got the pieces in place to do it,” Simmons said. “We’ve been in this situation before during the season. We didn’t have a full team the whole time. We know what we have to do and it starts on defense.”

The Sixers-Hawks series tips off at 1 p.m. at the Wells Fargo Center.

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(© Copyright 2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)