Sixers’ fate rests on the shoulders — and knee — of Joel Embiid

NEW YORK — Joel Embiid did not wait for Game 1 to finish before his night ended.

As Madison Square Garden roared and the action stopped with one last foul call, he walked off the court and through the tunnel with 2.1 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the game still running, technically, but already done. Maybe it was for the best; he had already skirted calamity once that evening.

The Philadelphia 76ers’ opening game of their first-round series with the New York Knicks was another reminder of the fragility of their current experience. Their 111-104 loss was not just a result of the two minutes and 37 seconds Embiid missed in the second quarter, as a franchise and fanbase had to wait — again — with bated breath about the health of their star. There were rebounding issues and wayward 3-point shooting and Miles McBride. Nothing is ever so simple, but with the 76ers, it can tend to be binary.

With Embiid, they are contenders. Without him, they aren’t.

So when Embiid appeared to re-injured his left knee late in the first half, the same one in which he tore a meniscus that required surgery in February and kept him sidelined for two months, it all hung in the balance once more. Even the play on which he got hurt was evidence of his greatness.

Stuck above the foul line, unable to dribble and with the 7-foot Mitchell Robinson on him, Embiid faked a shot, went up and under the Knicks center and threw himself a lob off the backboard, finishing it with a gnarly slam atop OG Anunoby. But when Embiid landed on his left leg, he went straight to the ground in pain and remained there for a bit before walking off into the locker room.

“Hell of a play and then ‘Oh s—,” Kelly Oubre Jr. said, recounting that moment. “It was a great play. It was an amazing play. Yeah, man, it’s scary. Our bodies are what we use as our vehicles out here. It’s tough, and he’s 7-foot, 300-pounds. … It’s tough, man. I couldn’t even imagine being 7 feet and being able to move like a guard and do the things that I can do but being that big. It’s tough, but he’s a warrior.”

Embiid returned to start the second half, and there are no plans, as of Saturday night, for him to receive more imaging on his left knee. But Embiid, who walked out of the locker room without a limp and without talking to the media, and his health are the difference-makers in Philadelphia. He is the reigning NBA MVP. It was clear again Saturday, even in a loss. He scored 29 points, grabbed eight rebounds and had six assists, and had an oversized impact even while missing 14 of 22 shots.

The Sixers outscored the Knicks by 14 points when Embiid was on the court and were outscored by 21 when he wasn’t. Embiid played 37 minutes Saturday, and it still wasn’t enough in a game in which so much went right for Philadelphia.

The Sixers got a resurgent performance from Kyle Lowry, who scored 18 points — only the second time he’s scored as much since the start of December — and helped lift them back from a 12-point halftime deficit. They hounded Jalen Brunson with big bodies and physical wings and held him to 22 points on 8-of-26 shooting. Their own All-Star point guard, Tyrese Maxey, scored 33.

But the Knicks found reinforcements in unlikely places. McBride scored 21 points off the bench. Josh Hart, an unsteady and sometimes unwilling long-distance shooter, had 22 and hit two late 3s with the shot clock running down to ice the win.

“I’m not sure I’m taking those possessions back,” Sixers coach Nick Nurse said. “I think we were doing what we wanted to do there.”

Philadelphia clawed back from down 58-46 at half despite a limited Embiid. He returned in the third quarter, but he did not look quite the same. His movement was limited. He barely tried to contest several Knicks shots at the rim. He kept to the perimeter on offense until the fourth quarter, when he went into the post. He stayed on New York’s end of the court during Philadelphia free throws.

The Sixers adjusted too. They went to a zone defense in the third quarter to try to muck up the Knicks offense and stuck Embiid near the rim. It went against their season-long tendencies. Philadelphia had played zone on just 5.8 percent of its possessions this season, according to Synergy Sports, but played 24.8 percent of Game 1 in one.

With Oubre, Nicolas Batum and others hounding him for parts of the game, and Embiid along the back line, they were able to slow down Brunson, who had one of his worst outings of what has been an All-NBA-level season.

“It wasn’t like we were blitzing him and sending two and trapping him and taking the ball out of his hands,” Nurse said. “I mean, we were sitting in our zone for a lot of it, but our zone shifts towards — you obviously were trying to guard certain guys right. And give them credit. I think we’re probably OK with some of those shots, but … they hit them.”

The zone, however, left the Sixers vulnerable on the boards, and with Embiid limited, the Knicks flocked for second chances. New York led the NBA in offensive rebounding rate this season and grabbed 23 offensive rebounds Saturday — tied for the fifth most by a team in a playoff game since the beginning of the 2019 postseason. It left the Sixers searching for answers, even after the game.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” Nurse said. “I gotta look at it. Again, I think, well you say, ‘Why don’t you block out.’ But again … I just gotta come up with a plan for them. We gotta look at it. Obviously we talked about it a lot. It’s a key thing that they do, and we didn’t do a very good job of that tonight.”

The Sixers will have to reassess ahead of Game 2 and craft a new plan. It will, of course, revolve around Embiid, whose health will continue to hang over this season. He remains their cornerstone. On the boards. In the paint. At the elbow. In everything they do.

All the Sixers need is for him to play.

(Photo of Joel Embiid: Elsa / Getty Images)

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