Opinion: Sixers can only go as far as Joel Embiid’s injured knee can carry them in NBA playoffs

Most of us have never had a torn meniscus, much less tried to play basketball on it, much less carried the playoff hopes of an NBA franchise on it. You can imagine it does not feel great, particularly when those knees support all 7 feet, 280 pounds of Joel Embiid for 35 minutes against a tough-as-nails Atlanta Hawks team in a game that the Philadelphia 76ers absolutely had to have.

But to any extent Embiid is feeling the pain this postseason, however much ice he has to use, whatever treatment he needs to deploy to get on the floor, it is clear the 76ers have no other option. There is Embiid, or there is elimination.

It has been difficult to tell how much (if at all) Embiid has been bothered by that knee in the first two games of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the upstart Hawks. In a season-saving 118-102 win that evened the series at 1-1, Embiid had arguably the best playoff performance of his career with 40 points and 13 rebounds and impacted the game defensively in myriad ways, including a few possessions where he contained Hawks star Trae Young on perimeter switches.

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In other words, if the Hawks were counting on something less than a 100% Embiid to give them an edge in this series, they were sorely mistaken. And if the 76ers have aspirations of holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy in July, they’ll need whatever is left of that meniscus to hang on for dear life through the rigors of at least 11 more games and likely many more than that.

USA TODAY Sports' Jeff Zillgitt and Mark Medina break down Trae Young's maturation into an elite scorer and playmaker for the Atlanta Hawks.


"You felt like that was Joel tonight," Rivers said. "He was that magnificent, that dominant for us early on. He set the tone for us and that’s what he has to do."

Embiid has to do that and more for the 76ers, because it’s increasingly clear their playoff run would be short-lived if the meniscus got bad enough that he couldn’t play.

Though the Hawks regressed from their stunning Game 1 performance, Game 2 was another reminder of how dangerous they can be and how many skilled players they’ve accumulated around Young. Despite being down by 16 points in a matter of minutes, Atlanta was within two at halftime and briefly took an 80-79 lead late in the third quarter. Without Embiid’s ability to create baskets when the 76ers aren’t really running much offense, they just don’t have the firepower to compete with Atlanta over a seven-game series. That would become even more magnified in the next round against an offensive powerhouse like the Brooklyn Nets.

The bottom line for the 76ers is that everything depends on how strong that knee can stay for the days and weeks ahead. So far, no matter what kind of pain Embiid is feeling along the way, it’s still good enough for him to dominate.

Follow Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.

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