PHILADELPHIA — Sixers coach Brett Brown pronounced Joel Embiid “probable” 90 minutes before Philadelphia hosted the Toronto Raptors on Thursday night.
That one word created an all-too familiar air of uncertainty around the 76ers.
Forty minutes before tipoff, the Sixers announced that Embiid would not play.
“He (went) through the warmups, and he just didn’t feel comfortable,” Brown said of Embiid. “It’s really that simple. He felt OK in the morning. He went through a shoot around. A half hour before the game I learned, we learned, that he just didn’t feel comfortable playing. He wasn’t going to able to give what he feels would help the team, so we decided to rest him again.”
The key word in that quote is “again.” Embiid’s presence was missed.
The 76ers squandered a 22-point, third-quarter lead and lost to the Raptors 114-109. DeMar Derozan sank 6 of 9 3-pointers and scored a game-high 45 points for the Raptors. Dario Saric led the 76ers with 18 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.
Philadelphia (14-17) has lost four straight and eight of its last nine games.
“We’re in a tough run right now,” Brown said. “But we have a tremendous amount of faith in the people in the locker room. They’ll be no meltdowns. We just have to go out and get it done.”
Thursday’s loss continued the Sixers’ trend of blowing big leads. They were up 16 in the third quarter but lost 101-95 to the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday.
“Is it something we think is going to continue to be an epidemic?” Brown said of the blown leads. “No, I don’t. I saw great things from this group. I saw a team fight without (Embiid) and J.J. (Redick). We’re disappointed. But I go a few layers deeper in the locker room and see how they genuinely care. We’re going to get better. We’re going to get better.”
Meanwhile, Embiid’s injury woes are becoming more and more of flashpoint with Philadelphia fans and media.
Philadelphia is now 1-7 when Embiid sits. He is one of the NBA’s most dominant players when healthy. His absences cause some 76ers fans and reporters to espouse conspiracy theories such as Philadelphia saves Embiid for national television games.
Embiid played 49 minutes in a triple-overtime loss to the Oklahoma Thunder last Friday. He played 39 minutes in a Dec. 12 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Both games were shown on ESPN. The 76ers will play the New York Knicks on Christmas day on ESPN.
Embiid’s injury history is well documented. He missed all of his first two seasons and played in just 31 games last season.
“I do this every year,” Brown said of preparing for a game with Embiid’s status unknown. “You rip up your play call sheet. It’s life here in Philadelphia with the injuries we’ve had. Life moves on, and it’s Christmas.”
No Embiid means more pressure on the 76ers other players, most notably Ben Simmons.
Brown took as many pregame questions about Simmons as he did Embiid. The 6-foot-10 Simons has impressed with his ability to pass and rebound but he took just 10 shots or less in three of the four games before Thursday.
The rookie made 9 of 14 shots to score 20 points on Thursday but nearly all of his attempts were in the lane. The crowd would shout “shoot” when he was open on the perimeter.
Simmon’s outside shooting is shaky but Brown is encouraging him to shoot more 15 to 17 foot jumpers.
“He can get that shot about when he wants,” Brown said. “We need to get that part of his game going.”
Brown reminded reporters that Simmons is just 21. Simmons can’t make up for Embiid’s absence by himself.
“He has many more years to go to grow and find ways to impact the game,” Brown said. “It’s done when we don’t have Joel by committee. That’s not who (Simmons) is right now. I think he can grow to doing that. But the pressure is not fair. It’s not wise.”
Thursday’s loss will only increase the drama around Embiid. The cycle will begin again with questions about Embiid’s status when Philadelphia plays at Toronto on Saturday.
Will Embiid ever get to the point when he can be depended upon to play 60 or 70 NBA games in a season?
It’s fair to ask how much does it hurt the 76ers growth as a team when so many questions surround its top player.
But that, as Brown said Thursday, is life in Philadelphia.