With the regular season over, the Sixers’ road to the Finals starts this Wednesday against the Heat in the play-in tournament.

Since Embiid’s return, the Sixers have gone 8-0, including two games without Embiid.

It’s no secret that he brings a boost to this team. As long as he can stay healthy, they have a shot at making a serious run.

How’s the Knee?

In a game against the Orlando Magic a few days ago, all Sixers fans had a scare. After driving to the basket and getting his own rebound, Embiid, wincing in pain, asked for a timeout and immediately headed to the locker room. Everyone watching probably had the same thought: here we go again. 

To everyone’s surprise, Embiid returned to the game in the second half and continued doing his thing. Afterward, when Nick Nurse was asked about the status of Embiid’s knee, he said the knee “responded well.” So take that for what you will, but it was a good sign seeing Embiid return in the second half.

Two Possible Matchups

After they take care of business tomorrow against the Heat, they will match up against the Knicks. The Knicks went 3-1 against the Sixers this year, but they are both very different teams now than they were before. 

Similarly, these two teams lost a star player in the latter half of the season, but the Knicks handled it much better. We all know what happened when Embiid went down, but the Knicks catapulted to the 2-seed in the absence of Julius Randle. Some may say the Knicks have a better chance without him, but not against the Sixers. Julius Randle has a rare combo of weight and speed that has caused trouble for the Sixers in the past. They do have some players more suitable to guard him now than last year, but I like our chances better without him.

The Boston Celtics

If the Sixers have Finals aspirations, then the Celtics shouldn’t scare them, but it’s more complicated than that. Lots of people are choosing the Celtics to not only win the East, but win the Finals as well. They are a great team and hold the NBA’s best record this year – by far. Normally, I’d say bring on the Celtics; we have to get them out of the way eventually, but not with the team chemistry we have now. When Embiid went down the team changed a lot, and teams need to be firing on all cylinders to beat the Celtics.

The Celtics already beat the Sixers in 7 last year, and now they’re better. Now, they have Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday providing extra offensive threats. With two big men that can shoot (Porzingis and Horford), Embiid won’t have the privilege of camping down in the paint, anchoring the defense.

With their other two stars, Tatum and Brown, the Celtics match up well against every team in the league. Not many teams have the athleticism, length, and interior defense to handle the caliber of players that the Celtics have. I think with the new additions of Oubre, Batum, and Lowry, the Sixers can beat this team in a tough series, but they need a few series to figure things out and build chemistry.

What’s Different for the Sixers this year?

First: Nick Nurse and not that scrub Glen Rivers (we already have two “Docs” in Philly. He’s not one of them). Nick Nurse is a great head coach with recent playoff experience that doesn’t involve choking leads. Watching Nurse’s offense for five minutes shows me how much of an upgrade we have at head coach. Rivers was stubborn. He wouldn’t change his defenses up or strategize his offensive scheme to expose weaker players. Nurse adapts. He switches his defense, targets other players, feeds the hot hands, and lets the players play to their strengths. He will help a lot, especially in a playoff series.

Second: Joel Embiid has fresh(ish) legs. He just had surgery on his meniscus, but he obviously took rehab seriously to work on what he could. His shot is falling; he added a floater for a few games, and his defense hasn’t changed. As long as there are no more freak injuries like a broken face, torn thumb, another knee injury, etc., we’re in good shape and can beat any team in the league.

Not one player in the NBA can hold Embiid down.
It’s his time to build his legacy.

Photo: Yong Kim

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