With important game vs. Pacers looming, it's clear just how much Sixers' fate rests on Joel Embiid


After the Sixers’ late collapse and bizarre loss Wednesday night in Chicago, Jimmy Butler admitted he was too pissed off to even start thinking about the Rockets.

And after the Sixers’ 107-91 loss Friday to the Rockets (see observations), Ben Simmons dismissed the notion that the Sixers’ spirits were still high.

“No, we’re pissed off we lost,” Simmons told reporters in Houston. 

But, unlike Butler, Simmons wasn’t too upset to look ahead to the Sixers’ next game, a matchup vs. the Pacers on Sunday at Wells Fargo Center. Indiana sits in the third spot in the Eastern Conference, a game ahead of the Sixers. 

“We need that win,” Simmons said. “We need a lot of these wins coming down the stretch. There’s not too many games left so we really gotta lock in.”

There are 16 regular-season games left, to be precise. The postseason is morphing from a faint dot in the distance to a real, looming reality. And still, Joel Embiid has yet to play a game after the All-Star break. He missed his eighth straight game Friday with left knee soreness.

Without Embiid, the Sixers needed exceptional performances from their stars and solid contributions from their supporting cast to have a chance to beat the Rockets. Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler combined for 41 points on 18 for 33 shooting, but their teammates were 17 of 62 from the floor (27.4 percent).

Head coach Brett Brown hopes he’ll have his best player back Sunday, but he wasn’t willing to say anything definitive.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just know it can’t come soon enough. But I truly don’t know for sure. I hope so, but I can’t say for sure.”

If Embiid isn’t playing, any Sixers game has a de facto asterisk. You can add another asterisk for  Friday’s terrible shooting performance — the Sixers made 3 of 26 long range shots, their worst three-point shooting effort of the season. JJ Redick shot a season-worst 1 for 11 from the field. Though Houston made things challenging, the Sixers missed plenty of shots they’d typically hit. 

Still, even taking those valid excuses into consideration, the Sixers’ energy simply wasn’t high enough for Simmons’ liking. 

“We gotta get our energy up,” he said. “It starts with energy, honestly. If we have no energy, defensive and offensive, it’s not going to be there.”

Harris, who scored a team-high 22 points, is still optimistic about what the Sixers can do if they can get all the pieces to click. 

There’s a great deal of potential with our team, and I believe this is a great group to win. Once we have everybody on board with going out there and just playing for the main goal of just winning, and having fun doing that, we’ve shown so many spurts of how good we can be. We need to be locked into that all the rest of these games. We gotta get healthy, also. This is a team with a great amount of potential and a great amount of talent. 

Harris didn’t say it, but Embiid’s health trumps intangible factors like “being locked in.” You’d also think having fun and bringing consistent energy will be easier for the Sixers when their All-Star center is back on the floor.

“I look forward to welcoming Joel back into this mix, letting him play with his new teammates,” Brown said. “I hope that that happens soon. We’ve got a really big game on Sunday — we all get that."

It’s certainly possible Embiid doesn’t play Sunday and the Sixers still beat the Victor Oladipo-less Pacers, but that doesn’t feel like a probable scenario. And in the big picture, the odds of the Sixers doing any damage in the playoffs without Embiid are infinitesimal. He doesn’t solely control their destiny, but much of the team’s hopes rest on him — and his health.

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