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Winners and Losers: The Joel Embiid Question Is Controlling the Sixers

Plus: Paul Millsap continues his postseason turnaround, and the only way Nikola Jokic can get some rest is by fouling out

Philadelphia 76ers v Toronto Raptors - Game Five Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

The good, the bad, and the questionable from Tuesday night’s Game 5s.

Game 5: Raptors 125, Sixers 89

Loser: Joel Embiid at Less Than 100 Percent

On any given night, seeing Embiid listed on Philadelphia’s injury report wouldn’t come as a shock. He is “Embiid: Questionable” as much as he is “The Process” or, uh, “Joel ‘Hulu Has Live Sports’ Embiid.” Three years into his NBA career, his injury history is long and serious enough to presume that more could be in his future. That’s the risk in building a team around Embiid. So far, it’s one Philadelphia has been willing to take.

In their second-round series against the Raptors, though, that faith has burned the Sixers as Embiid has faced health issues once again. To be fair, these aren’t the typical NBA maladies: In Game 2, Embiid had gastroenteritis; in Game 4, he was sick and sleep-deprived; and in Tuesday night’s Game 5, Embiid had an upper respiratory infection that caused him to miss shootaround. He’s also been experiencing pain from tendinitis in his knee throughout the postseason.

None of these ailments have prevented Embiid from starting each game in the series thus far. (He even played through “the shits” in Game 2, as he shared following Philly’s 94-89 win. Love transparency with the media!) But the shell of Embiid is hardly as effective as his healthy self, and his performances in this series will not go down in NBA history as memorable flu games: In the Sixers’ 125-89 Game 5 loss, Embiid finished with 13 points, six rebounds, one assist, one steal, three fouls, and a game-high eight turnovers. He wasn’t helping the team, and Brett Brown wasn’t helping Embiid by keeping him in the game. Brown finally yanked Embiid for good with 9:05 remaining in the fourth and Philly in a 101-73 hole. It was a merciful pull, but it could’ve (and probably should’ve) happened much earlier—the only time Embiid didn’t look miserable all game were the moments he had his face buried in a towel on the bench.

A sick and/or slightly injured Embiid puts Philadelphia in a tough spot. The Sixers have to decide whether it’s worth putting their best player on the floor when he’s only semi-playable; that decision gets more difficult when their other starters aren’t producing, either. (Ben Simmons scored just seven points on Tuesday night, and JJ Redick put up only three.) Not knowing how many minutes Embiid will play or how well he’ll play when he’s on the floor—or whether he’ll play at all—only brings uncertainty to a team that already doesn’t know where its points will be coming from on any given night. Philadelphia might not have had a chance at advancing past Toronto had it sat Embiid for multiple games, but at least its players would know where they stood entering each contest.

Winner: Bouncy Pascal Siakam

Siakam’s proved to be more of a dependable second-hand man to Kawhi Leonard than Kyle Lowry has this postseason. Of course, given Lowry’s playoff reputation, that doesn’t take much. Still, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Toronto relies on the production that Siakam—the third-year Most Improved Player candidate who wasn’t even a starter until this season—brings to the table. So when he hurt his calf in Game 3 against the Sixers then played rather un-Siakam-like in Game 4—which is to say, zooming around the court like the best sketch of Sonic yet—the Raptors seemed like they might have reason to sweat.

On Tuesday, though, Siakam was back to form: He recorded a game-high 25 points, eight rebounds, three assists, two steals, and one block, and he went 9-for-10 at the line. His offensive outpouring came at a good time, too, since Leonard had a rare cold night from deep, missing all four of his 3-point attempts. The broadcast mentioned that Siakam had said before the game that he still felt limited laterally, which I’m sure Jimmy Butler isn’t buying:

Loser: The Many Expressions of Brett Brown

Brett Brown is a shitty poker player. Have I ever actually played poker with him? No. So how do I know this, you ask? Just look at my man’s face:

I don’t know whether he can’t hide his feelings or whether, at this point, he just doesn’t see the use in trying. Maybe he thinks these looks of anguish will curry favor with the Sixers’ fan base, which would be helpful seeing as his latest approval rating in Philadelphia was a negative 347 percent.

Brown has a tough job. Sure, he’s starting four All-Star-caliber players and one of the best spot-up shooters in the league, but sympathize with the man: Simmons is playing with the energy of an iPhone 4 on 1 percent; Embiid is … see above; Redick, whose only purpose is to make 3s, can’t make 3s; and Jimmy Butler is the only two-way guy playing like a two-way guy. Does a coach forced to watch GREG MONROE shoot a corner 3 not deserve our empathy?

Simmons in particular has been a challenge to unlock this series. If anyone should be stepping up with Embiid sick, you’d think it would be the transformative, once-in-a-generation, little LeBron that Simmons has shown he can be. Yet passivity (heartbreak?) has left the 22-year-old prodigy looking half-baked. To recap, Brown is dealing with: Simmons falling flat, Embiid with bubble guts, Monroe risking it all behind the arc, and the real possibility that the Sixers won’t advance. Brown is probably coaching for his job right now, and the “coaching” part isn’t going very well.

Game 5: Nuggets 124, Trail Blazers 98

Winner: Old Head Paul Millsap

Millsap stans don’t surface as often as they did when he was in Atlanta. Denver has flashier offensive options, and even if that were Millsap’s game, it’s not what Mike Malone needs from the pairing of Nikola Jokic and the burly veteran. But this Portland matchup, much like Nuggets-Blazers games in the regular season, has brought out Millsap’s dominant side and a nastiness we rarely get to see from him. In Denver and Portland’s three preplayoff games, Millsap averaged 19.3 points while shooting 63 percent overall and 60 percent from deep. On Tuesday, he had 12 points in the first quarter—for context, Millsap averaged 12.6 points per game this season—and finished Game 5 with 24 points, eight rebounds, two assists, one steal, and two blocks in 34 minutes.

This was Millsap’s best performance of the postseason (and this is coming off Game 4 where he had 21 points on just 10 field goal attempts, his previous best effort of the playoffs). He exploited every Blazer that crossed him, including Terry Stotts, who couldn’t figure out a way for his frontcourt to be effective against Millsap. When Millsap was drafted in 2006, he was called a tweener. And though the label is now considered out-of-date in a positionless NBA, it’s still useful in explaining his command against Portland on both ends: Millsap is too agile for Stotts’s big men to keep up, and he’s too strong for smaller forwards and guards to body.

Millsap made the paint his sanctuary Tuesday, as did his teammates. (The Nuggets outscored the Blazers 64-44 there and made the most of transition opportunities, where they also ended with a whopping 12-2 point advantage.) And despite his rough bout of 3-point shooting in the first round of the playoffs—just 25 percent from behind the arc—he recorded his second straight 2-for-3 game from 3 on Tuesday.

Stans, unite now while it lasts: Even if Denver advances on the back of the world’s most boring former All-Star (tied with Al Horford), they’ll probably be facing Golden State in the next round, against whom Millsap’s scoring averages aren’t nearly as bullish … or in the double digits.

Loser: The Blazers’ Interior Game

Denver’s production in the paint wasn’t all thanks to Millsap. Portland was weak in its own right, both on the attack inside and in defending its interior on the other end. The Blazers were severely outrebounded from beginning to end, and they lost the battle on the boards by a 62-44 margin (52-31 on defensive glass). The backcourt drives that are typically successful for Portland also fell flat, but the team’s overall lack of productivity in the paint can’t be blamed on an off scoring night or an unfriendly rim.

Stotts put Al-Farouq Aminu on Jokic, Denver’s best offensive player, which made it easier for the Serbian to pounce on the glass. That move also gave Jokic—Denver’s worst defender—a simpler assignment on the other end of the floor, as Aminu is a non-threat. Jokic largely didn’t even need to bother to contest him throughout Tuesday night’s game.

Loser: Jokic’s Conditioning Plan

I know Malone felt bad after he played Jokic for an excessive amount of time in Game 3’s four-overtime loss. He said so immediately afterward: “Nikola Jokic played 65 minutes. That’s unheard of. That’s ridiculous. I can’t do that to him. That’s too many minutes.” Though I fully support a man acknowledging the ridiculousness of his actions and drawing a line between what he should and should not do to others, it’s part of Malone’s job description to be aware of how many minutes he’s played his star while the game is still going on, not after, as his big, lumbery marshmallow of a center melts into a blob in the showers and stays there until the tipoff of Game 4.

OK, so Jokic didn’t technically melt. The following game, he played 39 minutes. Seeing that amount of time was understandable-ish—the contest was decided by four points (a 116-112 Denver win) and Malone needed Jokic. Here’s what’s not understandable-ish: In Game 5, Jokic was still on the court with nine minutes remaining and Denver leading by 20. Malone left him in as the clock dwindled in the fourth and the scoring margin widened; in fact, Jokic only left the game with 3:50 remaining because HE FOULED OUT. He essentially subbed himself out of the game.

When Big Honey’s big body finally sat, he had played 34 minutes. Conditioning in the postseason, not the preseason: Malone’s either extremely behind or extremely ahead of the game.