Round two of the NBA playoffs is set to begin tomorrow night as the Philadelphia 76ers are looking for someone to step up against the Miami Heat. Immediately following the Sixers’ series-clinching victory in the first round of the playoffs, it seemed as though the team matched favorably against their second-round opponent. That was before the news Friday that the team’s star — Joel Embiid — suffered a fractured orbital and a concussion in the final game against the Toronto Raptors.
The news was a gut punch to the 76ers’ organization, their fans, and likely no one more than Joel Embiid himself. Embiid has suffered more than most in the NBA, both on and off the court — both this season and in years previous. From all of the regular season drama — mostly surrounding Ben Simmons — to suffering a torn UCL only to play through it and now be forced to deal with this latest hurdle, it’s more than one should have to endure over the course of a season.
That is, however, the hand that has been dealt, and the 76ers must press onward without Embiid, at least until he can return — as early as Game 3, though there is still a chance he could miss more as no return timetable has officially been decided.
Until such a time, this team is firmly in the hands of three players:
Who Needs to Step Up for the 76ers
It comes as no surprise that, above anyone else, the Sixers will be counting on the rest of their top-end talent to step up. James Harden, who the team acquired at the trade deadline, is the obvious candidate. This is especially the case considering that he’s been anything but as advertised since the trade — though he seems to be finding his range recently. Philadelphia will need Harden to find the aggressiveness that made him a top 75 player in NBA history.
Tyrese Maxey, meanwhile, trails only Harden when talking about players the Philadelphia 76ers will need to rise to the occasion. While it may seem like a lot to ask of a second-year player, Maxey has shown in multiple instances that he has the ability to lead the scoring charge for the Sixers. In fact, it’s fair to say that as a scorer, Maxey is the most capable player on the roster not named Joel Embiid, so, despite his young age, he’s shown before he’s ready for the moment and must do so again.
Finally, there is Tobias Harris. It’s a unique case for Harris as the ask for him isn’t for more so much as it is for more of the same — at least more of the same from the previous round. Against the Raptors, Harris averaged 17.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 43.3% from deep on five attempts per game. While these are not superstar numbers, this is all that’s ever been needed from Harris; nearly 20 points, plus rebounding, and a fair number of three-pointers falling at a high percentage. Compound that with the impressive defense Harris displayed in round one, and you have the perfect complimentary player — what the Sixers need him to be.
Just Hold Down the Fort
All the 76ers need to do is hold the fort until Joel Embiid returns; once that happens, then the real series can begin. What does that look like, though? Well, it could be as simple as one or both of the following:
The Sixers must remain competitive. They cannot afford to mope about or get further demoralized in either of the first two games against the Heat; they must instead find it within themselves to push back even without Joel Embiid. This is something they have already done this season, and against the Heat, no less. On March 21st, without both Joel Embiid and James Harden, the 76ers overcame Miami by a score of 113-106 on the back of a Tyrese Maxey Masterclass. What’s different today is that Harden can be added into the mix, which should only boost Philadelphia’s chances of making the first two games competitive at the very least.
The second — bolder — possibility is that of potentially stealing a game in Miami, even without Joel Embiid. The 76ers have beaten the Heat without their stars before, as previously stated, and now with James Harden and even Paul Reed — who Doc Rivers has finally realized is a necessity — this Sixers squad is even better than before. There is still a chance the team finds a way to click and shock the Heat in one of the first two games. With the recent news that Kyle Lowry is officially out for Game 1, that seems to be the game to make a statement.
If the 76ers can come home with an even series, and if Embiid is truly able to return in Game 3, the tide could turn in Philadelphia’s favor even further. That type of empowering result could very well give them the push needed to finally make it past the second round of the NBA playoffs.