The Sixers' recent momentum has hit a road bump, one they will have to overcome for at least the next two games. Joel Embiid (left knee contusion) is expected to miss Tuesday and Wednesday's matchups. The Sixers are accustomed to playing without him in one game of a back-to-back series, but two straight nights is a new scenario.
The Sixers are 2-10 without Embiid this season. They don't want to lose the steam that has them 7-3 in their last 10 games, but racking up wins minus their standout rookie has been a looming challenge.
Here are six steps the Sixers can take while Embiid is sidelined.
Maintain a defensive mindset
While Embiid is the Sixers’ leading scorer, the team gives up a massive amount on the defensive end when he is not in the game. Sixers opponents are averaging 97.7 points with Embiid compared to 107.3 points without him, according to NBA.com.
Brown is looking toward his other centers to lead the defensive charge. Nerlens Noel has increased his rebounding average to 6.8 boards over the last five games (including 12 against the Wizards without Embiid). Jahlil Okafor is averaging 5.0 rebounds in his previous three starts, but his strengths have always come on the offensive end.
“I think you go with Jahlil and Nerlens and challenge them in relation to rim protection and what Joel provides us,” Brett Brown said. “The group around them also has got to perform at a higher level when you don’t have Joel. I think that second group that we have been playing, led by Nerlens, really can take on a far greater defensive identity than it has recently, and Nerlens will be the captain of that.”
Find rhythm in rotations
The Sixers hit their stride after Brown narrowed the rotation to 10 players. He locked in a starting lineup of T.J. McConnell, Nik Stauskas, Robert Covington, Ersan Ilyasova and Embiid.
Sergio Rodriguez, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Gerald Henderson, Dario Saric, and Noel rounded out the second unit.
Of course, those looks change without Embiid. Okafor gets back into the lineup as a starter and becomes a focal point of the offense.
Brown decided to change up the reserves on Saturday when he sat Rodriguez and shifted Stauskas to the backup point to give Luwawu-Cabarrot more of an opportunity.
“It gives you confidence when the coach believes in you,” Luwawu-Cabarrot said. “You know that you’re going to be on the court and you don’t have to think maybe if you do a mistake you’re going to come back on the bench. You can play more free.”
Even though the Sixers are in an experimental phase, maintaining clarity of the rotation will help them form cohesion on the court without Embiid.
Move the ball
Brown pointed to ball movement as the difference-maker in the Sixers’ win over the Trail Blazers on Friday. He highlighted the stat of 36 made field goals off 26 assists.
The team shared the offensive burden when Embiid went to the bench because of his injury. Five other players (Covington, Henderson, Luwawu-Cabarrot, McConnell and Noel) combined for the final points of the game.
The offense has become stagnant at times, though, when Embiid is not on the court and the Sixers do not have a main target.
“It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard,” Brown said. “That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. ... You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.”
Stay composed down the stretch
The Sixers have pulled off three recent buzzer-beating wins, a strong feat for a team that struggled greatly down the stretch at the start of the season. One of the most impressive aspects of the Sixers’ victory against the Blazers was their poise and discipline without Embiid as the game went into crunch time.
The Sixers will have to buckle down and stick with the mindset that put them in the position for those game-winning shots by Covington (twice) and McConnell. That means limiting turnovers, which have caught up with the Sixers in many instances. Each player also must stay ready if they find the ball in their hands for the final bucket.
Okafor make an impact
There’s no question Okafor can score. The absence of Embiid creates the chance for him to be the main offensive option when relieved of his DNPs. Okafor is averaging 16.0 points in his last three starts in place of Embiid. He attempted 16 field goals in his first of those three, but since has taken a total of 13 tries in his last two starts.
“You can’t expect to come out of a timeout and have a play that gets you the ball,” Brown said. “He’s got to create his own offense. Joel Embiid has to create his own offense. (Tim) Duncan used to have to create his own offense (when Brown was on the Spurs’ coaching staff). ... There’s a self-participation where we want them running the floor and demanding deeper catches and touches and rolling harder. ... If he’s ‘the guy,’ you’ve got to get more touches and you’ve got to get more shots.”
Okafor has maintained a fundamental approach to his starting opportunities.
“Playing as hard as I can, just trying to help the team win in every way that I can and give 110 percent effort,” Okafor said of his approach.
Seize the opportunity
Injuries have created opportunities for the Sixers of late: Rodriguez-McConnell, Henderson-Stauskas, Embiid-Okafor.
While Okafor is the most obvious Sixer to receive more playing time without Embiid, others can also step up in his absence. Players who amp up their games on both ends of the floor have the chance to emerge while the team is looking for contributors to fill the major voids left by Embiid.
“It definitely hurts the team, how can we spin it any other way? It hurts the team,” Brown said. “You’re going to now look at Nerlens and Jahlil; this is fantastic for those two. It could prove, based on some things, Richaun (Holmes) sees daylight a little bit. There aren’t many teams, I would suspect, that have the ability to roll out three young guys when somebody like Joel goes down and look forward to watching them develop more, look forward to giving them the opportunity to play NBA minutes.
“Setback doesn’t immediately come to my mind because I think there are other positives given where we’re at given the stages of our program. It’s not like we’re trying to hold on to second in the East. We’re still growing our program, we’re still experimenting, we’re still developing. We can never forget that.”