A pivotal moment in this Philadelphia 76ers season might’ve taken place in the middle of the night this week along I-95 in rural Maryland.
Monday night was bad for the Sixers. They lost star Joel Embiid to a knee injury that could cost him multiple playoff games and threaten their title hopes. They fell apart without him in the second half that night, allowing the Washington Wizards to win Game 4 and extend their first-round series. And then their charter plane broke down, and they had to take buses back to Philadelphia.
But by 6 a.m. Tuesday, when the Sixers rolled into home, there was a different outlook. The bus ride turned into an open therapy session and altered players’ frame of mind.
“It was an opportunity for the team to bond. It was us just chopping it up and talking,” Tobias Harris said. “We let that game go and just said, ‘Hey, we’re going to win the next one and keep it rolling.'”
Using a different lineup and a different strategy, the 76ers walloped the Wizards 129-112 on Wednesday night in Game 5 to close out a 4-1 series win. And to build some momentum as they deal with the reality of not having their MVP candidate while they prepare for a second-round series against the Atlanta Hawks.
The Sixers are calling Embiid day-to-day with a small tear in his right meniscus, and he buoyed hopes when he shot around with teammates before the game. He seems to have avoided — or be putting off — surgery for now, but coach Doc Rivers was decidedly noncommittal about when Embiid could realistically return.
That has the Sixers, the top seeds in the East and winners of 14 of their past 17 games overall, challenging each other to survive and advance.
“We’ve got the pieces and tools to do it,” said Ben Simmons, who had 19 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists in the win. “We’ve been in this situation before during the season. We know what we have to do.”
Rivers and his coaching staff looked at about 10 different starting lineup combinations before settling on putting forward Matisse Thybulle in the lineup and playing small and with more pace. Without Embiid’s strong post-up game, the Sixers also ran more offense than usual through guard Seth Curry, putting him in pick-and-rolls with Harris.
Curry had a career-playoff-high 30 points as he repeatedly was able to find space for clean looks. Harris, in a playmaking role as well, had 28 points and six assists.
When Embiid went down with a left knee injury in March, the 76ers went 7-3 without him, including 4-2 on a long Western trip. That experience gave them confidence Wednesday and, players said, going forward in the postseason against a Hawks team that has been equally hot.
“We know we’ve got enough without Joel out there to win a few games,” Curry said. “We don’t have a choice — we’ve got to have that confidence and believe. We’ve got a lot of confident guys. Joel has been huge for us all year. It’s only right for us to give him as much time as he needs to get back and help us win it all.”