The Philadelphia 76ers are set to do battle against the Boston Celtics. It’s the series we’ve been basically waiting for all season long. And to make the stakes even higher, Giannis Antetokounmpo was injured minutes into his first playoff game, so the No. 8 seed Miami Heat wound up knocking out the East’s top seed, upending the Eastern Conference bracket.
That means that the winner of this Sixers-Celtics series will play host to whoever emerges from the Knicks-Heat side of the bracket. Neither the Heat nor the Knicks would have been favored over a fully healthy Sixers group. But that’s what makes this all so, so maddening.
Joel Embiid is dealing with an injury that occurred in the first round of the playoffs for the third season in a row. This team should really consider load-managing him until the elite eight next year.
According to Doc Rivers, Embiid should be considered doubtful for Game 1 up in Boston, set for Monday. That became official Sunday afternoon via Adrian Wojnarowski on Twitter:
Sixers have officially listed Embiid as doubtful now.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) April 30, 2023
And with that update, an annual nightmare feels even more upsetting this time around given A) it was easily the best Embiid has ever looked personally, the presumptive MVP favorite, and B) they’ll now likely be missing (for at least a game) the same dude who recently dropped 52 points on the Celtics.
According to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, P.J. Tucker, the team’s emotional leader, the player Embiid called out by name as the type of #dawg the team needs during exit interviews back in 2022, after losing to Miami, didn’t sugarcoat Philadelphia’s challenge ahead.
“This is the series that we’ve all been waiting for all year. And for us to not know if he’s gonna play, yeah, that sucks because we’ve run everything through him....”
PJ Tucker on Joel Embiid's injury: “This is the series that we’ve all been waiting for all year. And for us to not know if he’s gonna to play, yeah, that sucks because we’ve run everything through him..."https://t.co/RYutJanzFl #Sixers #BrotherlyLove #Celtics #BleedGreen— Keith Pompey (@PompeyOnSixers) April 30, 2023
How did we get here?
Against the Nets, an overmatched and scrappy Brooklyn team sold out to slow down Joel. Head coach Jacque Vaughn called for his team to hit hard on the defensive glass. They sent Joel to the wood.
Doc Rivers guessed the reason Embiid left the floor for the locker room was because of his back from one of those hard falls.— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) April 21, 2023
Those body shots accumulated as Embiid would head off to the locker room for treatment on his lower back in Game 3 of round one, and when he returned, he was falling more, and more, and more.
Embiid would finish the game, as he often does on injuries that wind up being rather serious, and initial reports would sound much rosier than the ones that would inevitably come later.
Your heart breaks for the big fella, as it’s just been so hard for him to get to the second round of the playoffs full go.
And so here we are. We are not expecting Embiid in Game 1 vs. Boston, and that essentially means, we cannot in good conscience, expect them to emerge victorious from this series.
Neither do the betting markets.
The Sixers opened as -7 point underdogs for Game 1, while Boston enjoyed a massive edge to advance.
Celtics big time favorites over Philly, as we don’t know Embiid’s status for Monday.— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) April 28, 2023
Line opens Celtics -7, with a -330 series money line. (Roughly 70-30% in favor of Boston.)
You got the sense that if Embiid progressed this week, if we’d started to get updates that he was doing more in practice, the line would have crept back down to -4 or so. And if we heard he would be ready to roll for the opening tip, it might have even hit -3.5.
These two teams would have been at least close to evenly matched if both were at full strength.
But things went the other way. We kept hearing Joel was 50 percent at best, not practicing, that it in fact was an LCL sprain that might involve a brace, and that it might be more severe than initial reports made it sound.
On top of all that, Harden’s name has been swirling in rumors the 33-year-old might return to Houston this offseason. Harden appeared to strain his Achilles back in late March and has not looked like his All-NBA self ever since returning. There’s also some TMZ footage of him involved in a dispute out in Vegas during an off day. So yeah, the vibes have been better.
Harden’s health and consistency were already major concerns, even before our bad Joel news.
The vibes had been off the charts as recently as mid-March.
But now, it’s feeling like another second-round exit is staring us all right in the face, with potential seismic offseason changes ahead.
Let’s peep our odds.
Whoever emerges from this Sixers-Celtics series is likely to make the NBA Finals.
Philly is given a +350 shot to pull off the upset and get over that semi-finals hump for the first time in the Embiid era. That amounts to roughly a 20 percent chance. One-in-five, not impossible, but not what fans were hoping for.
As for the big picture, the Sixers’ own title odds have unsurprisingly gotten longer with Embiid news. They’re now +950 to win the championship. That had been as high as +700 at one point, when the Sixers were up 2-0 over the Brooklyn Nets, and Joel was still healthy.
The Sixers still have (+475) the second-best odds to win the East behind Boston’s -240, but with the Miami Heat taking Game 1 in their best-of-seven-game series over the New York Knicks, it’s possible we could be set for a rematch of the 2022 ECF, as long as Jimmy Butler’s ankle injury isn’t too severe.
Miami is now a (-155) favorite to advance over Butler’s former coach (both in Chicago and Minnesota), Tom Thibodeau’s gang.
The latest title odds, with Boston now expected to host the Nuggets in the Finals:
Insert your favorite Embiid “I’ve won MVP, but at what cost,” memes, watching two bitter rivals enjoy success.
Paul Reed, Tyrese Maxey, and James Harden need to have monster games up in Boston.
If somehow, someway, the Sixers can steal one up in Beantown, whether that’s with or without Embiid, the path to the NBA Finals will begin to look less far away.
If Embiid were healthy, the bracket would be shaping up quite well for Philadelphia. But that’s one big if at this point.