Not a few quarters saw fit to second-guess Sixers head coach Doc Rivers’ decision to leave top dog Joel Embiid on the floor in the dying minutes of Game Six of their first-round series. After all, the pundits noted, the red, white, and blue were already up by 21 when the fourth canto began, and the Raptors could go no closer than 18 the rest of the way. And given the Most Valuable Player candidate’s injury history, prudence dictated that his minutes be managed well. Instead, he burned rubber for all but the last three minutes and 58 seconds of the payoff period, and only because he was on the wrong end of an elbow that, it was subsequently learned, gave him a concussion and facial fracture.
Hindsight makes for 20/20 vision, to be sure, and Rivers could not have known Embiid would be the victim of a freak play. Predictably, it’s what he pointed out to scribes that greeted him after practice yesterday. “Everyone was in there, and the other team had all their guys in, too,” he said. And he’s right. Then again, the Raptors’ situation — what with the deficit necessitating full force (aside from no small measure of good fortune) to overcome — was markedly different from their own. Taken in this context, his defense was that he had already planned to take the Sixers’ leading scorer and rebounder out prior to the fateful play came off as more of an excuse.
It bears noting that Rivers traditionally tightens his rotations in the playoffs. Embiid normed close to 34 minutes in 68 regular-season games, in contrast to the 39-per-match average against the Raptors. It’s also reflective of the bench tactician’s desire to avoid a Game Seven after the Sixers claimed the first three contests; he counted on his best charges to close the deal, perhaps with his previous postseason failures at the back of his mind. In any case, what’s done is done, and he has no choice but to prepare for the conference semifinals without his franchise workhorse.
Needless to say, the burden is on Rivers to steer the Sixers to success without Embiid on tap — which may well be a tall order against the resilient Heat. With no one on the roster close to approximating the lost talent level at the slot, he’s bent on using a platoon to tide them over. How that will work out remains to be seen. “We just have to be very smart in how we plan our bigs,” he argued. And, given their leader’s indefinite period of convalescence, how “smart” figures to determine how much — and, yes, how long — they will stay competitive.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.