The Sixers fate rests on the shoulders – and knee – of Joel Embiid

NEW YORK — Joel Embiid didn’t wait for Game 1 to end before his night was over.

As Madison Square Garden roared and the action stopped with a final foul call, he walked off the court and through the tunnel with 2.1 seconds left in the fourth quarter, while the game was technically still in progress but already finished . Maybe it was for the best; He had already avoided disaster on Saturday evening.

The Philadelphia 76ers’ opening game of their first-round matchup against the New York Knicks was yet another reminder of the fragility of their current experience. Their 111-104 loss wasn’t just the result of the two minutes and 37 seconds Embiid missed in the second quarter, as a franchise and fanbase had to wait with bated breath — once again — for the health of their star. There were recurring issues and wayward three-point shooting and Miles McBride. Nothing is ever that simple, but with the 76ers it can seem binary.

With Embiid, they are contenders. Without him they are not.

So when Embiid appeared to re-injure his left knee late in the first half, the same one that caused him to tear a meniscus in February that required surgery and sidelined him for two months, it was all on the line again. Even the part where he was injured was a testament to his greatness.

Stuck above the foul line, unable to dribble and with the 7-foot Mitchell Robinson on him, Embiid faked a shot, went up and under the Knicks’ center and threw himself a lob off the backboard. end with a loud bang on top of OG Anunoby. But when Embiid landed on his left leg, he went straight to the ground in pain and stayed there for a while before walking into the locker room.

“Great play and then ‘Oh s—’,” Kelly Oubre Jr. said, recounting that moment. “It was a great play. It was a great play. Yeah, man, it’s scary. Our bodies are what we use as our vehicles here. It’s heavy, and he’s 7-foot-4 and 300 pounds. … It’s hard, man. I couldn’t even imagine being 7 feet tall and being able to move like a guard and do the things I can do but be that big. It’s tough, but he’s a warrior.”

Embiid returned to start the second half, and there were no plans as of Saturday night for him to undergo more imaging on his left knee. But Embiid, who walked out of the locker room with a limp and without talking to the media, and his health are the difference makers in Philadelphia. He is the reigning NBA MVP. It was clear again on Saturday, even with a loss. He scored 29 points, grabbed eight rebounds and had six assists, and had an outsized impact even while missing 14 of 22 shots.

The Sixers outscored the Knicks by 14 points when Embiid was on the court and were outscored by 21 points when he wasn’t. Embiid played 37 minutes and it still wasn’t enough in a game where so much went right for Philadelphia.

The Sixers got a resurgent performance from Kyle Lowry, who scored 18 points – only the second time he’s scored that many since early December – to help them recover from a 12-point halftime deficit. They chased Jalen Brunson with big bodies and physical wings and held him to 22 points on 8-of-26 shooting. Their own All-Star point guard, Tyrese Maxey, scored 33.

But the Knicks found reinforcements in unlikely places. McBride scored 21 points off the bench. Josh Hart, an unstable and sometimes reluctant long-range shooter, had 22 and hit two late 3s as the shot clock wound down to ice the win.

“I’m not sure I take those possessions back,” Sixers coach Nick Nurse said. “I think we did what we wanted to do there.”

Philadelphia clawed back from a 58-46 halftime deficit despite a limited Embiid. He returned in the third quarter, but he didn’t look quite the same. His freedom of movement was limited. He barely attempted to contest several Knicks shots at the rim. He stayed on the perimeter offensively until the fourth quarter, when he entered the post. He stayed on New York’s side during the free throws in Philadelphia.

The Sixers also adapted. They went to a zone defense in the third quarter to try to mess up the Knicks offense and stick Embiid at the rim. It went against their seasonal trends. Philadelphia had played zone on just 5.8 percent of its possessions this season, according to Synergy Sports, but played 24.8 percent of Game 1 in one.

With Oubre, Nicolas Batum and others chasing him for part of the game, and Embiid along the backline, they were able to slow down Brunson, who had one of his worst performances in a season at the All-NBA level.

“It wasn’t like we targeted him and sent two, trapped him and took the ball out of his hands,” the nurse said. “I mean, we were in our zone for a lot of our zone, but our zone shifts to – you were obviously trying to protect certain guys well. And give them credit. I think we probably agree with some of those shots, but… they hit them.”

However, the zone left the Sixers vulnerable on the boards, and with Embiid limited, the Knicks flocked for second chances. New York led the NBA in offensive rebounding this season and grabbed 23 offensive rebounds on Saturday — fifth-most by any team in a playoff game since the start of the 2019 postseason. It left the Sixers looking for answers even after the contest.

“Yes, I don’t know,” said the nurse. ‘I have to look at it. Again, I think, well, you say, ‘Why don’t you block.’ But then again…I just have to come up with a plan for them. We have to look at it. Of course we talked about it a lot. It’s an important thing that they do, and we didn’t do that well tonight.

The Sixers will have to reassess and come up with a new plan before Game 2. It will obviously revolve around Embiid, whose health will hang in the balance this season. He remains their cornerstone. On the shelves. Painted. At the elbow. In everything they do.

All the Sixers need is for him to play.

(Photo by Joel Embiid: Elsa/Getty Images)