PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The 76ers’ championship run rests on the condition of Joel Embiid’s achy left knee.
Embiid, Philadelphia’s All-Star center, is doubtful to play Saturday in Game 1 of the first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets because of tendinitis in his left knee that cost him most of the final month of the season
“If I can’t go, it means it’s pretty painful,” Embiid said Friday.
Embiid noted he only feels discomfort jumping, moving or landing.
In other words, it hurts to play basketball.
Embiid will make the call if he can suit up Saturday afternoon at the Wells Fargo Center.
“It’s my decision because I’m the one feeling the pain and it’s my body,” he said.
He’s doubtful on the injury report and he took another guess on social media Friday night with the caption “it’s that time of the year” and a slideshow of Embiid playing against Brooklyn, Toronto, Boston and the Golden State Warriors — a possible combination of teams that Sixers would have to beat in order to win their first NBA title since 1983.
Embiid (who averages 27.5 points and 11.1 rebounds) has been hurt since the All-Star break, and an MRI in February revealed no structural damage. He had physical therapy, ice and rest to alleviate the tendinitis but not much has changed.
The Sixers (51-31) can certainly afford to rest Embiid for another game or two. Yes, the Nets are a pesky No. 6 seed in the East, but the Sixers boast perhaps the best starting five in the East with Embiid, All-Star Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, JJ Redick and Tobias Harris. Harris and Butler were acquired this season by first-year general manager Elton Brand with the Sixers in a win-now mode. Coach Brett Brown hasn’t backed down from his preseason boast that the Sixers could reach the NBA Finals, and Brand said this week the Sixers need to at least get past the second round.
“We have the best team I’ve ever coached,” Brown said.
Without or without Embiid, the Sixers are a favorite to zip past the Nets. Embiid had a broken orbital bone and missed the first two games of last season’s first-round series against Miami, and the Sixers still won in five.
Beyond that, it gets sticky for the Sixers.
Embiid missed 14 of the final 24 games of the regular season and played just 64 this season. Even if he plays Saturday, he’s clearly in pain and his injury history offers no assurances his body can hold up over two grueling months and the possible 28 games needed to win a title.
“It’s about the pain in my knee,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep working through it.”
The Sixers roared into the postseason on a 16-game winning streak a year ago and took Game 1 against the Heat, then lost to Boston in the East semis. They went 4-6 down the stretch this season, only heightening Philly’s annoyance level. Brown has been weary discussing Embiid’s injury and twice this week shut down repeated attempts at questions on the center’s status.
“Please refer to your (injury) sheet and I’m happy to talk about hoops,” he said.
There’s also this — in a postseason full of gamesmanship, would anyone truly be surprised if Embiid walked out to a rocking ovation when starting lineups are introduced?
Here’s what else to know for Nets-76ers, Game 1:
Jonah Bolden also has a sore left knee, leaving the Sixers with Boban Marjanovic, Greg Monroe and Amir Johnson as options if Embiid doesn’t play.
Simmons and Brooklyn’s D’Angelo Russell were both first-time All-Stars this season, and after Simmons was rookie of the year in 2017-18, Russell hopes to pick up some hardware soon as a candidate for the Most Improved Player award. Simmons is speedy but not much of a shooter, while Russell does most of his damage from the perimeter. But they are quite similar in one way: They were teammates at Montverde Academy in Florida from 2012-14.
Russell has shot 43.4 percent and is averaging 21.1 points for the Nets.
“It’s crazy, the irony,” Russell said. “I think it’s meant to be. For us to get in the playoffs and match up, may the best man win.”
Tied, 2-2, but with a catch. The Sixers only played one of those games with their current starting lineup. Embiid scored 39 points and the Sixers raced to a 20-point lead in the win late last month. Butler hit a 3 with 0.4 seconds left to steal a 127-125 win in November.
Former Sixers Dario Saric, Robert Covington and Markelle Fultz all started in the first game of the season series.
“We give ourselves a chance at the end of the game every time against them and we beat them as well,” Russell said. “We just have to go into the playoffs as prepared as we can and let the results end up where they are.”
The Nets are set for their first postseason appearance since 2015, one that seemed unlikely when they were 8-18 in December. But they went 34-22 from there for their first winning record since going 44-38 in 2013-14.
“I haven’t counted the amount of players we have that don’t have playoff experience. Seems like there are a lot of them, so great opportunity for them,” coach Kenny Atkinson said. “I think it’s great that it’s Brooklyn vs. Philadelphia. Right down the turnpike. Exciting matchup.”
NOTHING BUT NETS
Sure, the Nets were bad, with three straight seasons of win totals in the 20s, but there was no catchy nickname in Brooklyn for their rebuild. General manager Sean Marks took over in February 2016 a franchise that had no first-round picks — none! — in 2014, 2016 and 2018 because of an ill-fated trade with Boston under a previous regime. But Marks shrewdly hired Atkinson, traded for Russell and signed free agents Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Ed Davis. Marks has cleaned up Brooklyn’s salary-cap mess and can chase a max free agent this summer. The Nets also have two first-round draft picks in 2019. No matter the outcome against the Sixers, the future is suddenly bright in Brooklyn.
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