Opinion: Sixers can only go as far as Joel Embiid's injured knee can carry them in NBA playoffs

Dan Wolken
USA TODAY

Most of us have never had a torn meniscus, much less tried to play basketball on it, much less carried the playoff hopes of an NBA franchise on it. You can imagine it does not feel great, particularly when those knees support all 7 feet, 280 pounds of Joel Embiid for 35 minutes against a tough-as-nails Atlanta Hawks team in a game that the Philadelphia 76ers absolutely had to have.

But to any extent Embiid is feeling the pain this postseason, however much ice he has to use, whatever treatment he needs to deploy to get on the floor, it is clear the 76ers have no other option. There is Embiid, or there is elimination.

It has been difficult to tell how much (if at all) Embiid has been bothered by that knee in the first two games of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the upstart Hawks. In a season-saving 118-102 win that evened the series at 1-1, Embiid had arguably the best playoff performance of his career with 40 points and 13 rebounds and impacted the game defensively in myriad ways, including a few possessions where he contained Hawks star Trae Young on perimeter switches.

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In other words, if the Hawks were counting on something less than a 100% Embiid to give them an edge in this series, they were sorely mistaken. And if the 76ers have aspirations of holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy in July, they’ll need whatever is left of that meniscus to hang on for dear life through the rigors of at least 11 more games and likely many more than that.

"I want to win it all," Embiid said, which is both an obvious sentiment in the middle of a playoff run and an explanation for why he’s gutting this out despite an injury that often requires surgery or knocks players out for weeks.

But regardless of how he was feeling, Embiid had everything working in Game 2: The fadeaway jumpers, the step-throughs, the hesitation moves that lead to easy dunks. He made 13-of-25 field goals and completely neutralized Hawks center Clint Capela, who has been one of the NBA’s best post defenders all season. He made 6-9 rookie Onyeka Okongwu look comically small when he was asked to defend Embiid 1-on-1.

With seemingly minimal effort, Embiid got wherever he wanted on the court. Even on one good knee, he made scoring 40 points look laughably easy.

"Everybody in the league needs help against Embiid," Hawks forward Danilo Gallinari said of his team’s failures to make him uncomfortable for even a second of this series.

Despite missing the last game of the 76ers’ first-round series against the Washington Wizards and being listed on the injury report as questionable for the first two games against the Hawks, Embiid has played 38 and 35 minutes, respectively, in this series.

Joel Embiid scored a playoff career-high 40 points for the Sixers in their Game 2 win.

He’s scored one-third of Philadelphia’s points against the Hawks. He’s made 26 free throws by himself, while the Hawks as a team have made 35. There’s been little evidence Atlanta has much of a way to slow him down, other than hoping he misses shots.

"He basically just went down to his spot and got deep post position, and we have to do a better job of fighting early to deny his catch, as well as allowing him to get deep post position," Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. "We’ll make some adjustments to how we’re defending him and some of the things we’re doing to try to guard him, but tonight we were allowing him to basically just walk down to the post and set up."

Embiid’s Game 2 performance may have been fueled to some degree by finishing a distant second to Denver’s Nikola Jokic in the Most Valuable Player voting — an award Embiid feels he should have won.

"There’s only some things I can control," he said. "Obviously as a team we had a good year and I was a part of it, but it’s disappointing because as a player you work hard for moments like this, but then again it’s out of my control. Nothing I can do about it, just have to come out every year and be ready and do my job."

Sixers coach Doc Rivers recalled playing for the Spurs against Houston in the 1995 Western Conference finals when David Robinson won the MVP over Hakeem Olajuwon. The night the award was announced, Olajuwon scored 41 points with 16 rebounds as Houston took a 2-0 lead in the series.

"You felt like that was Joel tonight," Rivers said. "He was that magnificent, that dominant for us early on. He set the tone for us and that’s what he has to do."

Embiid has to do that and more for the 76ers, because it’s increasingly clear their playoff run would be short-lived if the meniscus got bad enough that he couldn’t play.

Though the Hawks regressed from their stunning Game 1 performance, Game 2 was another reminder of how dangerous they can be and how many skilled players they’ve accumulated around Young. Despite being down by 16 points in a matter of minutes, Atlanta was within two at halftime and briefly took an 80-79 lead late in the third quarter. Without Embiid’s ability to create baskets when the 76ers aren’t really running much offense, they just don’t have the firepower to compete with Atlanta over a seven-game series. That would become even more magnified in the next round against an offensive powerhouse like the Brooklyn Nets.

The bottom line for the 76ers is that everything depends on how strong that knee can stay for the days and weeks ahead. So far, no matter what kind of pain Embiid is feeling along the way, it’s still good enough for him to dominate.

Follow Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.