7 for 6: A Big Hole in the Middle

| The Sixers struggle for answers as their best player sits on the sideline |

Embiid still out, but a return might be coming

Joel Embiid’s lingering knee soreness might finally be coming to an end. There’s optimism that he will return from his eight game absence Sunday versus the Indian Pacers.

The team has gone 4-4 in this stretch of unavailability, and they’re 5-5 on the season. He’s clearly the most important player on the roster and missing him certainly hurts. But rest like this is important.

Embiid himself downplayed that concern, saying that his decision to rest is about the playoffs this year, and the years in the future.

“It’s all about long-term preservation and making sure I’m ready not just for the playoffs, but also for the next 15 years,” Embiid said.

That is encouraging for a few reasons. Emiid is super competitive, and has probably pushed himself back from injuries too soon before this. The fact that he’s able to look forward like this speaks to his growth as a player. Also, the team would have shut him down for the season if the injury had the potential to hinder his future.

But the Sixers should also consider why an injury like this appears in the first place. Embiid had only missed two games before this knee soreness forced him out, despite it appearing earlier in the year. He also played through back soreness earlier in the year.  It might be in everyone’s best interest for Embiid’s rest to be more scattered throughout the season. That would hopefully mean less of these extended stretches of the big man’s absence.

Center position suddenly In question

The recent stretch of games without their best player have been difficult for Philadelphia. The Sixers’ depth at center was tested in a major way. The most recent acquisition, Boban Marjanovich, also hurt his knee last week. An MRI revealed no damage, but it’s unclear when he will return. It’s left the Sixers with Jonah Bolden and Amir Johnson as the only conventional big men on the roster, and  forced them into a lot of small ball lineups.  There were reports that they wanted to sign Andrew Bogut, but he will apparently sign with Golden State.

Bolden has shown a lot of good signs when available. He’s already a confident three point shooter, and he had two excellent back to back games versus the Thunder and Warriors.

It would be easy for Amir Johnson to come in rusty and disgruntled. The team has moved him to the G-League Blue Coats multiple times this year, after all. But to his credit, he came out and played an excellent game in the win versus Orlando; 13 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, and 2 blocks in just under 20 minutes.

A long-awaited win

The Sixers did something they hadn’t done in a while; they beat the Oklahoma City Thunder for the first time in 19 tries. Tobias Harris led the way with 32 points, including 5 three pointers.

Late Game Execution Highlights Close Losses

A few days later, the Sixers took on the defending champion Golden State Warriors. It was another close game, but this time the Warriors were victorious.

There were some errors down the stretch which doomed the Sixers. Firstly, down by 3 points with 35 seconds left. Mike Scott intentionally fouled Kevin Durant. It took away a chance to get the ball back and tie the game. Instead Durant sunk 2 free throws to extend the lead to five.

Second, Ben Simmons, needing to intentionally miss a free throw late in the game completely missed the rim and backboard, again robbing the team of a chance to get the ball.

Finally, they were unable to get a final shot off at the end, as Simmons inbounded the ball into a double team, where Tobias Harris had virtually no space along the sideline and stepped out of bounds.

Those moments make it a very frustrating loss. The Sixers were a few breaks away from sweeping the two time defending champion Dubs. But at the same time, it’s quite impressive how close their games seem to be. Granted, Klay Thompson did not play in either contest this year. But the Sixers ability to go blow for blow with the Warriors is hugely impressive, especially without Embiid.

A few days later, another mistakes doomed the Sixers against the lowly Chicago Bulls. Winning by a point with four seconds left, Jimmy Butler and Mike Scott got confused on a switch and left Zach Lavine with an open lane to the basket.

Butler recognized his mistake after the game. “I think I should’ve just fought through the screen, [stayed] with my man,” he said. “A lot of that’s on me…I just gotta be better on the defensive end.”

Simmons gets hardware

It’s the second such award of Simmons’ career. He had a big week stuffing the box score as usual. He averaged 16 points, 13 rebounds, and 8 assists per game, including two triple doubles.

Zhaire Smith, Patton Progress

The Sixers #1 draft pick from 2018 finally stepped onto a professional basketball court last week. Zhaire Smith made his debut for the Delaware Blue Coats. He showed off his athleticism, and some flashes of defensive upside that should make fans excited about what he can do when he finally gets a shot in the NBA.

Smith is expected to join the Sixers when the Blue Coats season ends and the end of this month.

Meanwhile Justin Patton was recalled by the Sixers, largely by necessity. First Embiid went down with knee soreness, then Boban Marjanovice, and finally Jonah Bolden after a string of some good games. With Amir Johnson as the only healthy big man on the roster, Patton finally saw his first game action on Tuesday versus Orlando. He only scored 1 point, but also had 4 rebounds and 3 assists.

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