If there can be a silver lining for the Philadelphia 76ers‘ 36-point blowout loss — a 125-89 drubbing — to the Toronto Raptors in Tuesday’s Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, it is this: That the Sixers would become so angry, so embarrassed by their performance that they’ll come out with a vengeance in their must-win Game 6.
Because that’s what this game was: A total embarrassment. For a team that as recently as last week was bragging about its championship aspirations, this game was as strong of a rebuttal as possible to those aspirations. One of the league’s biggest trash-talkers, Joel Embiid, was reduced to essentially a pile of trash. One of the league’s most tantalizing young talents, Ben Simmons, was a wallflower. One of the league’s biggest trade-deadline acquisitions, Tobias Harris, was once again utterly ineffective, as his game-worst plus-minus of minus-34 would indicate. And one of the league’s biggest win-at-all-costs killers, Jimmy Butler, turned into a killer without a murder weapon, a guy who played well enough to win if he’d been the third-best player on his team instead of the only guy who showed up on Tuesday night.
This isn’t just a problem for this year’s 76ers. It’s a problem for the franchise’s foreseeable future. New general manager Elton Brand sped up the Sixers’ deliberative Process this year and turned it into a win-now proposition. If the Sixers don’t win now — and if they get knocked out of the playoffs in the second round in embarrassing fashion — their failure this season could short-circuit the long and arduous Process that Sixers fans have lived through for years. You think Harris and Butler are going to run it back for a team that got embarrassed in the second round?
The place to start is where everything starts with the Sixers: The often otherworldly but more-often fragile Embiid. In one game this series — Game 3 — Embiid showed us his full potential, which unlocks the full Sixers’ greatness. That Sixers team, the one with an MVP-caliber Embiid, isn’t just a team that can beat the Raptors in a seven-game series; that’s a team that can win it all. But in every other game this series, there’s been something that’s held Embiid back. Sometimes it’s his balky knee. Sometimes it’s a virus. Sometimes it’s an upper-respiratory infection. Sometimes it’s — how did Embiid put it? — “the shits.” Sometimes it’s Marc Gasol. But always it’s something — or at least it’s been something in four out of the five games so far this series.
This is an enormous problem for the Sixers. Embiid sets the tone for the Sixers; when he’s aggressive, so’s the rest of the team. When he’s trash, the Sixers have to turn to Jimmy Butler, and he can only do so much. Embiid’s best moments in Game 5 came during that Mountain Dew Ice commercial. Why couldn’t Brett Brown blow a chilly wind from his mouth and concoct a dominating Embiid from thin air? He put up only 10 shots — six of them 3-pointers! — but had eight turnovers. He was invisible on defense except for when he got dunked on by Kawhi Leonard (when Embiid, one of the best shot-blockers in the world, barely left his feet). He made it to the free-throw line only twice, despite only James Harden getting to the free-throw line more frequently than Embiid during the regular season.
You are not crazy to wonder if the Sixers would be better off if a barely-able-to-get-out-of-bed Embiid would just stay in bed for Game 6 if he’s feeling no better. It would hurt his reputation, sure, but no worse than playing like this hurts his reputation.
If Embiid does not play, can the Sixers upset the Raptors? Absolutely. They’re a completely different team without their franchise big man, but they still have more superstar talent than most. Butler is capable of taking over another game in this series. Harris is capable of making shots at an efficient rate; he’s one of the better 3-point shooters in the league. JJ Redick is one of the best 3-point shooters in the league, and he’s certainly capable — he’s expected — to do better than his 1-of-6 shooting from Game 5. Simmons has been defending at a high level this series; maybe a missing Embiid would spur him on to do something on the offensive end, too.
The Sixers are in a bad, bad way. But when you consider whether Game 5 was more a matter of the Raptors being great or the Sixers being trash, you have to land on the game being more of a matter of the Sixers being trash. That’s good news for Philly fans, I think. We know this isn’t a trash team. We saw it a few days ago, when in Game 3 Embiid looked like an MVP and the Sixers looked like world-beaters.
And if this season is to be saved, and if The Process is to be put back on the right track, they need Embiid to take whatever sort of miracle pills are out there to conquer his dozens of ailments. They need to him sleep, take medicine, eat kale, get acupuncture, pray. They need Embiid to get back to his best self of Game 3, and for the rest of the Sixers to fall in line behind him. If they don’t, The Process could very well be over before it ever really got going.