The biggest question suddenly looming around the Philadelphia 76ers’ upcoming playoff run is the health of Joel Embiid. If he misses a game or two against the Brooklyn Nets and is hampered at all by his knee moving forward, the Sixers’ chances of competing for the Eastern Conference Finals could drastically decrease. With Game 1 here, Embiid has been listed as doubtful, with Joel himself saying “he has been experiencing increasing pain in his left knee”, per Serena Winters.
For now, though, let’s focus on the Nets series from Embiid’s perspective for whenever he is able to take to the floor.
Besides the fact that the Sixers will have the four best players in the series, boasting a starting five that went 8-2 and earned a plus-17.6 net rating in 10 games together, the way Embiid can assert himself against Brooklyn’s bigs can tip the series more in their control than anything else. He was a force against the Nets in the regular season, averaging 30 points on 60 percent shooting (with a 70.4 True Shooting Percentage), 14.3 rebounds, five assists, 11.5 free throw attempts, and a net rating of plus-9.5 through four games.
There’s simply nothing Jarrett Allen and Ed Davis can do to slow him down. When diving into where Embiid found most of his success, it’s even more apparent how unstoppable he can be.
If he made more than just 10 of his 28 jump shots against the Nets this season, his shooting numbers would be even more eye-popping. He shot a staggering 25-of-27 at the rim (seriously), while hitting five of his nine hook shots.
Anywhere around the basket, Embiid was basically unstoppable. Neither Davis or Allen have the strength to hang with Embiid. Whether he’s driving from the high post, or simply lowering his shoulder from the low post, Embiid can power his way past for perfect positioning:
Embiid’s footwork can easily get the best of Allen, the Nets’ top rim protector, too. Embiid has too much physicality once he gets rolling downhill from the elbows, while also possessing the footwork and fakes to send Allen jumping off his feet or fouling:
In fact, with Allen on the floor this season, Embiid shot 66.7 percent overall, including a 77.8 percent mark within five feet of the basket. Embiid is going to get whatever he wants. And if Brooklyn want to try small lineups (such as Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at center) with the hope of out-pacing Embiid, they’ll promptly be bullied into oblivion when it’s his turn on offense. There’s nothing the Nets can do. If Embiid doesn't power his way to the basket with those kinds of mismatches, he can just as easily spin and finish soft turnarounds over his opponents as well:
The defensive side of this matchup for Embiid can’t be overlooked either. His importance in protecting the rim will be vital. With multiple ball handlers to give Philly’s perimeter defense a hard time (as has been the case all season), Embiid will need to deter opponents from the paint and contest shots at the rim when his teammates inevitably give up dribble penetration. D’Angelo Russell will be snaking his way into the lane for his trusty floaters and pull-ups, while Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie can both attack the rim.
Not having to guard a pick-and-pop threat is perfect for Embiid. Centers like Al Horford have given him trouble in the past when popping out of pick-and-rolls or simply hanging at the perimeter, somewhat neutralizing Embiid’s rim protection. Against Allen and Davis (the former being the only one to hit a 3-pointer this season after going 6-of-45), Embiid has the strength to handle them inside and on the boards, and the comfort of knowing he can leave them be away from the basket to provide extra help at the rim.
For example, you can see here how easy it was for Embiid to leave Davis unguarded at the perimeter at the start of the play, then be in position to swat the cutting Hollis-Jefferson from behind after receiving the inbounds pass:
If the Sixers leave their drop pick-and-roll coverage behind for the most part (as they experimented with more later in the season), Embiid can hard hedge or trap more to contain Brooklyn’s guards. Embiid can also lurk closer to the basket when off ball with no concern of a shooting center, allowing him to commandeer the series from a defensive standpoint, too.
With the increased uncertainty over Embiid's condition and whether he'll play in Game 1, I’ve hesitantly changed my prediction to the Sixers winning in six games (I was confident they'd win in five). Matchup frustrations with a set of dynamic guards and Embiid’s uncertain status aside, the Sixers are still the superior team — since February 1, the Nets only have a 14-15 record, the 28th-ranked offense, and a minus-0.8 net rating.
Embiid’s overwhelming dominance in this matchup is the Sixers’ leading advantage. Now, we just need to wait and see how healthy he is to determine the most likely duration of this series, and the outcome of any potential run beyond it.