Sixers set to start another playoff run with an ailing Joel Embiid

It’s April and the postseason looms for the 76ers, which really only means one thing in Philadelphia: Joel Embiid is dealing with some kind of affliction.

One of the greats in the game, Embiid has accomplished just about all there is to do in the NBA. He’s an MVP. A two-time scoring champion. A seven-time All-Star. This season, Embiid even scored 70 points in one game.

Yes, Embiid’s season-accomplishments have made him worthy of max contracts and Olympic teams and all the other spoils that go with blossoming into one of the most must-watch players in the NBA.

But it’s playoff time once more and that’s the season when things get dicey for Embiid. The 7-footer has played through injuries since the day he was drafted and it’s more of the same this season. He tweaked his surgically repaired left knee last week, and while coach Nick Nurse expected his big man to go Wednesday night in the play-in game against Miami, there’s never a guarantee Embiid will be structurally sound enough to withstand a grinding postseason run. His availability — rather, lack of it — is the most substantial reason the 76ers have failed to advance beyond the second round in the Eastern Conference playoffs in his seven full seasons in the NBA.

Yeah, but what about all those old adages about “next man up” or how a team is “more than one person” that are supposed to highlight that success and failure go beyond one player?

Forget it, Philly.

The 76ers finished 31-8 this season with Embiid — about a 65-win pace — and a woeful 16-27 without him.

As Embiid goes, so go the Sixers.

“Every chance that I can be out there,” Embiid said earlier this month, “I’m going to take it.”

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The chance to go deep in the playoffs is tight for Embiid and his teammates.

The Sixers need to beat Jimmy Butler and the Heat to actually make the playoffs, where they’d earn the No. 7 seed and play the New York Knicks in the first round. If the Sixers lose, they must win the next play-in game on Friday to clinch the No. 8 seed in the playoffs and play No. 1 Boston.

Lose both and Philly’s season is over.

Nurse won an NBA championship with Toronto in 2019 in a run buoyed by a seven-game conference semifinal win over the best Sixers team in Embiid’s tenure. It was also part of a string of postseasons interrupted by injury for Embiid.

Last season marked three straight years Embiid missed at least one playoff game with an injury. He sprained his right knee last season cost him games against Brooklyn and Boston. He missed two games in the second round in 2022 and another in the first round in 2021 with various injuries, on top of the two he missed to begin the 2018 playoffs with an orbital fracture and another in 2019, also with a knee problem.

The 76ers have trudged on with a 5-3 record without Embiid in the playoffs since 2018.

“The only thing I want is for us to be healthy,” Embiid said. “I just want us to have that chance. We’re not going to be as good without everybody. It’s not just about me.”

The 30-year-old Embiid finished the season averaging 34.7 points and 11 rebounds in just 39 games. He had the statistical oddity of scoring more points than minutes played, finishing with 1,353 points in 1,309 minutes.

He also has a potent sidekick in All-Star guard Tyrese Maxey, a heavy favorite for the NBA’s most improved player award, who scored 50 points in a game three times this season. Maxey said he’s taken the necessary steps — such as a season-long dedication to conditioning — to endure a potentially long postseason run and form a formidable 1-2 punch with Embiid.

“This is the best I’ve felt going into the playoffs since I started in the NBA,” said Maxey, playing in his fourth season.

Contrast that with Embiid, who said weeks ago the effects of the most recent knee injury sent him into a depression.

“This one, it took a toll mentally. Being depressed. It was not a good one,” Embiid said. “Still not where I’m supposed to be, especially mentally. But I just love to play. Love basketball and I want to play.”

He confessed that before he was forced to briefly leave a game Friday with an injury to the knee. Embiid sat out the regular-season finale as a precaution but was a full participant each of the last two days of practice ahead of the play-in game.

“He was good. He was in good spirits,” Nurse said Monday. “He was highly engaged. A lot of things we were doing were super game plan-specific. He was locked in.”

But can Embiid stay locked in into June? The 76ers would love to find out just one season — just one, before he starts to decline — what it’s like to make a championship run with a healthy, happy Embiid.

It just won’t be this year.

Reporting by The Associated Press.

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