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Joel Embiid key to deep playoff run, but is he healthy enough?

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SportsPulse: Jeff Zillgitt says while the Eastern Conference isn’t totally wide open, at least four teams are very serious contenders.
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PHILADELPHIA — Oh yes, there is pressure.

The Philadelphia 76ers feel it everywhere they turn as they embark on a second straight playoff appearance.

The pressure began before this season started when head coach Brett Brown said the goal is the NBA Finals. And that was before general manager Elton Brand traded for Jimmy Butler in November and Tobias Harris in February, giving the team a starting five surpassed only by the Golden State Warriors.

And that was before all those hopes and expectations were turned into panic over the possibility that the key to all of it, 7-foot center Joel Embiid, isn’t fully recovered from a knee injury despite having most of the last two months to rest.

In fact, he was listed as “doubtful” for Game 1 on the NBA’s injury report Friday. He did not practice. When asked if he would be ready for Saturday afternoon’s tip-off, Embiid said, “I have no idea.”

So yes, there is pressure as the Sixers, 51-31 in the regular season, open their first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets, who finished 42-40.

“Absolutely,” Brand said. “We embrace it, though. If you don’t have pressure, you’re not in the playoffs, and there are no expectations. This is where we want to be. Our goal is to bring a championship to the city and to these fans. It comes with the territory.”

That’s why the Sixers were doubling down on their goal to go farther in the playoffs this season than last, when they lost in the second round to the Boston Celtics.

That means getting past the Nets in the first round without Embiid at full strength, and likely the Toronto Raptors in the second round. Toronto finished second in the East, has a matchup nightmare in Kawhi Leonard and can easily go nine players deep.

“I would feel like a coward sitting in front of you all saying, ‘My goal is to lose in the second round,’ ” Brown said. “I feel like it has to be that. … We get how hard it is to be the last man standing. We get how hard it will be coming out of the East.

“But to me, the goal can’t change, and that’s the way it is.”

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The desired result will change, however, if Embiid isn’t healthy. And there is every indication that he isn’t. Brown said his “gut feel” is that Embiid will be ready to play Saturday. But Brand said “it’s possible” that he won’t.

Embiid has missed 14 of the last 24 games, including the last three and five of seven. For weeks, the Sixers have insisted it was mostly so Embiid can rest to ensure that he’s ready for the playoffs.

We know that’s not true anymore. 

Brand didn’t necessarily rebut a reporter who asked if it’s an issue that Embiid appeared to have gained 10 or 15 pounds while he was sitting out.

“I don’t think it’s a weight issue,” Brand said. “Like I said, he’s focused on his diet. He’s focused on his cardio and his conditioning.”

Brown later added: “I think he’s doing some good work behind the scenes, but there’s nothing like playing basketball to get in shape to play basketball.”

Embiid has been running on an underwater treadmill, Brand revealed, but he hasn’t been playing basketball.

Embiid’s conditioning was a problem in the playoffs last year, too. He missed the final eight regular season games and the first two games in the first round after fracturing a bone in his face. The Celtics, a deep team like the Raptors, then wore Embiid out in the second round.

Sure, Embiid can technically work his way into shape in the first round against the Nets. He is a dominating force at center who averaged 27.5 points and 13.6 rebounds per game. And the Nets don’t have anyone who can cover him.

“I am (concerned),” Brown said about Embiid’s conditioning, “but all we should be reminded of is to look at the game he has played statistically when he has had rest. They are dominant. … They are completely jaw-dropping stats.”

Brown is right about that.

Embiid missed eight straight games after playing in the All-Star Game and had 33 points and 12 rebounds in a win over the Indiana Pacers in his return. He missed one game due to “load management,” then had 37 points and 22 rebounds in a win over Boston. He missed three games and had a triple-double with 34 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists in a win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

Milwaukee is the Eastern Conference’s top seed, Boston is No. 4 and Indiana is No. 5. 

Also, in the 10 games the Sixers’ starting unit has played together, they are 8-2, including wins over the Bucks on the road and the Celtics at home. 

So, yes, there is talent. That begs the question: What happens if the Sixers fall short of their goal of the Eastern Conference finals?

Do they get a mulligan because of injuries? Because the new starting unit only played together 10 out of a possible 28 games in the regular season? 

“I don’t want to go into doomsday scenarios,” Brand said. “But you look at how the series went. Of course, you look at the factors — health and what was going on out there. You definitely have to look at that.”

That doesn’t guarantee another chance next year. Not when Butler and Harris can become free agents. Not when Ben Simmons still hasn’t developed a jump shot. And not when J.J. Redick, even though he had a career season, turns 35 in June.

And mostly, not when Embiid has already missed two full seasons and at least 18 games in each of his next three.

There simply might not be a better chance than now, however flawed the Sixers might be.

Martin Frank writes for the Wilmington News Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network.

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