When your best player isn't your best player, it's awfully hard to win a playoff series.
Joel Embiid hasn't been himself for most of the postseason and has struggled mightily in four of the five games of the Sixers' second-round series with the Raptors. Game 5 wasn't a banner night for any Sixer, but Embiid's performance was magnified by the context of his health.
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The All-Star center, still dealing with the effects of an upper-respiratory infection, had another dreadful night Tuesday. He scored just 13 points and committed eight turnovers. Embiid actually looked OK physically. It was the mental aspect of the game that seemed to plague him.
He improved so much dealing with double teams and "quarterbacking the gym," as Brett Brown likes to say, toward the end of the season. His decision-making was highly questionable in Game 5 as he continually dribbled into crowds and made poor outlet passes.
"I think that offensively there was a rhythm to his game that was clearly out of sync," Brown said. "He's been in a bed for two days. I think the easiest way to confirm what I'm saying is just watch his turnovers. By any stretch, they're not Joel Embiid-type turnovers."
What makes Embiid's recent performances so frustrating is what we saw from him Game 3. He poured in 33 points and blocked five shots in a Sixers' blowout win. He was dominant. He was Joel Embiid.
A lot was made of the matchup Embiid is facing against veteran big man Marc Gasol. It's a fair point to bring up. Gasol plays Embiid as tough as any center in the league. But the Sixers have figured out ways to shake Embiid loose by getting Gasol on the move. Brown has used Embiid more as a screener and a roller, something he hasn't done a ton of early in his career.
He's not taking his struggles lightly and wants to do whatever it takes to keep his team's season alive.
It sucks. I know I've got to do a better job for us to win. I've got to do the little things. I need to score the ball, I've got to show up. You know, setting screens, I've got to do a better job rebounding the ball. That's on me. I can't control my physical condition, but I can also control how much I push myself, and I try to do that. But I've just got to do more.
Embiid has drawn plenty of criticism from the fans and media about his lack of health and poor body language. People have pointed to Embiid's diet and have questioned whether or not he's properly taking care of himself.
While national pundits took their shots at Embiid, his coach and teammates defended him vehemently.
Jimmy Butler has emerged as a leader for the Sixers. Even after Butler fulfilled his media obligations in the locker room, he joined Embiid at the podium. This is something Butler has done throughout the playoffs.
He knows the potential of Embiid and is trying to lift his big man up.
We're not concerned," Butler said. "Like I said before, we're going to ride or die with big fella. Everybody around this locker room knows that, everybody in the world should know it, the fans should know it. We'll be just fine, we're going to keep doing what we're doing, encouraging him to keep battling through all injury, through all sickness and we're here with him.
Something Butler often talks about is making sure his teammates are enjoying themselves. Butler always talks about smiling and having fun while playing basketball.
That message may have gotten through to Embiid.
The Toronto fans didn't appreciate Embiid's throwing down a windmill dunk and his subsequent airplane celebration. As he was leaving the court Tuesday night, those in attendance at Scotiabank Arena mocked Embiid's antics. It was likely not a fun moment.
There hasn't been much for the Cameroonian to smile about recently, but he knows he has to change his mindset if he wants to get right.
"I know that I've got to go back to Game 3, the same energy, got to have fun," Embiid said. "That's one of the keys of me playing so well this whole season. It's just about, I've got to smile on the court, I've got to lift my teammates up. I shouldn't care about offending anybody, just got to be myself, just not really care, just do whatever I want to. At the end of the day, that's how I dominate. If you see the smile, that means I'm doing what I'm supposed to do, and I intend to be doing that in two days."
He better if he wants to give Sixers fans something to smile about Thursday.
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