Joel Embiid’s status for Game 1 against the Atlanta Hawks was questionable until just before tip-off due to the small meniscus tear in his right knee. But the Philadelphia 76ers’ MVP candidate returned, playing incredibly well when considering his health.
The main takeaways from Game 1 are clearly about where the Sixers went wrong, such as using Danny Green to defend Trae Young far too much and using an all-bench lineup in the first half. We can dive into those issues properly another time, though. Embiid finished with a new playoff career-high 39 points on 12-of-21 shooting (he was 14-of-15 from the free throw line), 9 rebounds, 4 assists (to 4 turnovers), 1 steal and 3 blocks in 38 minutes. He scored efficiently, generated plenty of free throws, beat Clint Capela several times with moves to the basket or by drawing contact, and moved well. How he played after being sidelined since Game 4 against Washington on May 31 and dealing with a lingering injury was extremely encouraging for the Sixers.
When speaking with media after the game, Embiid provided a few updates on how his knee feels and what he’ll be doing to manage it and keep playing during this series.
“Playing on a torn meniscus is not easy,” Embiid said simply. “But all I got to do is keep managing it, do my best, get as much treatment as I can to try to manage it to make sure that it doesn’t swell up too much. Obviously, the pain is going to be there, that’s normal, but it’s all about managing it and doing whatever it takes to win. Because my goal is to win a championship and I’m going to put my body on the line to make sure that happens. I’m going to give everything I got.”
Embiid made it clear that he wasn’t thinking about his injury during the game. “I just wanna focus on giving my all, just playing hard every single possession, giving everything I’ve got and go from there.”
“All I can do is control what I can, and that’s by taking care of my body. Other than that, whatever happens, happens.”
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said that he checked with Embiid about five times through the game to see how he was doing, and Embiid kept saying, “I feel great.” Rivers, similarly to Embiid, mentioned that the Sixers didn’t change their approach with how they used Embiid at either end of the floor because of his injury.
“We didn’t change much, not because of his health,” Rivers said. “We changed more because of Trae Young than Joel’s health.”
The moment when Rivers was more uneasy with Embiid was in the final few minutes as the pace ramped up while the Sixers made a frantic comeback to narrow the Hawks’ lead.
“I didn’t like him in, even though we had to have him in,” Rivers said, “but when we were trapping and running around in that last three minutes and obviously we made a run, I did not like him on the floor at that point. Because I didn’t want him doing those things, if you want to be honest. That’s why we told him to just stand back. Because those are the ones that you get injured on.”
Embiid explained that icing his knee, keeping it elevated and other treatment will be important for him over the next couple of days as he and the team do what they can to manage the pain and swelling.
Rivers reinforced a similar message, saying that Embiid will have “tons of treatment, tons of rest” before Game 2 on Tuesday.
“I can adjust to any style of play,” Embiid said when asked if he’s approaching this series any differently with his injury. “We just played Washington, they play fast. This team, they were physical and they play fast, I can adjust to it. It’s the playoffs, you can’t worry about how many minutes someone is supposed to play or is gonna play, you’ve got to go with your best guys. As long as I’m ok to be out there, I’m gonna give my best and I’m gonna keep pushing until I can’t. But as long as I’m out there, I’m gonna play hard and I’m gonna dive for loose balls, and I’m gonna do whatever it takes to win.”
Embiid, not excited by simply returning to play or his 39-point performance, is strictly focused on how he can improve in Game 2.
“I could have played better,” he said. “We lost the game, so that’s what my focus is on. What to do better next time to make sure that we get a win.”