A turning point this season for the Philadelphia 76ers could have 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 their star center Joel Embiid to a knee injury that could cost him multiple playoff games and threaten their title hopes. They collapsed without him in the second half that night and allowed 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 at 6am on Tuesday, when they got home, there was a different perspective. The bus ride turned into an open therapy session and altered the mood of the players.
“It was an opportunity for the team to bond. We were just talking,” Tobias Harris said. “We let that game go and we just said, ‘Hey, we’re going to win the next one and move on.’
Using a different lineup and a different strategy, the 76ers defeated the Wizards 129-112 on Wednesday in Game 5 to seal the series victory 4-1 and built some momentum as they grapple with the reality of not having their candidate. to MVP as they prepare for a second-round series against the Atlanta Hawks.
The Sixers are carrying Embiid on a day-to-day basis with a small tear in his right meniscus, and he raised hopes when he did target practice with his teammates before the game. He appears to be avoiding or postponing surgery for now, but coach Doc Rivers was decidedly evasive about when Embiid might return.
That has Sixers, the East’s top favorite and winners of 14 of their last 17 games overall, challenging each other to survive and advance.
“We have the pieces and the tools to do it,” said Ben Simmons, who scored 19 points, had 10 rebounds and 11 assists in the victory. “We have been in this situation before during the season. We know what we have to do.”
Rivers and his coaching staff analyzed about 10 different starting lineup combinations before deciding to put Matisse Thybulle ahead in the starting lineup and play smaller and faster. Without Embiid’s strong defensive play, the Sixers also ran more offensively than usual with guard Seth Curry, putting him on pick-and-rolls with Harris.
Curry had a playoff high of 30 points as he was repeatedly able to find room for clean plays. Harris had 28 points and six assists as he also played a playmaker role.
When Embiid was out with a left knee injury in March, the 76ers finished 7-3 without him, including 4-2 on a long drive out West. That experience gave them confidence Wednesday and, the players said, advancing into the postseason to play the equally hot Hawks.
“We know we have enough without Joel to win some games,” Curry said. “We have no choice, we have to have that confidence and believe. We have a lot of confident guys. Joel has been great to us all year, it’s right that we give him so much time. He needs to come back and help us win it all.”