Joel Embiid showed how badly the Sixers need him on the floor to have a shot against the Knicks

NEW YORK — Tom Thibodeau has been thinking deeply about basketball for the better part of his 66 years. But it didn’t take a coaching lifer and genius defensive coordinator to come up with an explanation for why his Knicks quickly found themselves in a hole on Saturday night.

“[Joel] Embiid got going on us pretty good,” he said.

He got going, and he kept going, to the tune of 29 points, eight rebounds, six assists, a pair of steals and at least a dozen shots altered or snuffed out altogether. He was the best player on the floor whenever he set foot on it; the 76ers outscored New York by 14 points in the 36 minutes and 32 seconds he played in Game 1, and it felt like it. Felt like more, even.

But New York still took Game 1, 111-104, because it outscored Philadelphia by 21 points in the 11 and a half minutes Embiid was off the floor — a period that included a terrifying late-second-quarter stretch where it seemed like yet another playoff run for both Embiid and the Sixers had been brought to a devastating end before it even truly got started.

The NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player opened Game 1 of the East’s 2-vs.-7 series intent on sloughing off any lingering concerns from his up-and-down performance in the 76ers’ play-in tournament win over the Heat. Embiid came out scorching, scoring Philly’s first nine points on a trail 3 and a pair of tough attacks in the paint that led to and-ones. He looked spry and menacing on the defensive end, coming out higher on the floor to put a roadblock in the path of All-Star point guard Jalen Brunson before recovering to stonewall Knicks drives, turning would-be layups into contested, clanked floaters.

By the end of the first quarter, Embiid had racked up 15 points on nine shots, staking the visitors to a nine-point lead after 12 minutes. Fears over the status of his left knee — the one in which he suffered a torn meniscus in January, the one he seemed to tweak in the Sixers’ second-to-last game of the regular season, the one that he seemed to be dragging around for much of Philly’s play-in win over Miami — faded to the background as he looked like the most dominant force in a series between two teams with their sights set on the Eastern Conference finals.

And then, late in the second quarter, that force expressed its dominance loudly, violently, in a way that brought all those fears flooding right back.

Facing up at the right elbow, Embiid found his path to the basket impeded by Knicks center Mitchell Robinson. So, like Tracy McGrady, Anthony Edwards, Chet Holmgren and a number of others before him, Embiid stepped through, tossed the ball off the backboard, caught it himself, and hammered it down through the hoop with a thunderous dunk all over the back of Knicks forward OG Anunoby. But what goes up must come down, and when all 7 feet and 280 pounds of Embiid descended, he immediately went to the ground and grabbed for that surgically repaired left leg, writhing in pain in a sea of blue paint.

“Hell of a play,” Sixers forward Kelly Oubre Jr. said. “And then, ‘Oh, s**t.’”

“It’s tough seeing your brother go down,” 76ers All-Star point guard Tyrese Maxey said. “You just kind of feel for him, pray for him, and then hope he's OK.”

The look on Embiid’s face as he stared at the rafters in Madison Square Garden didn’t inspire much cause for optimism …

… nor did the fact that he needed help to get up and on his way, very gingerly, back to the visiting locker room with just over two and a half minutes left before intermission.

And yet: there he was at the start of the third quarter, back on the floor to try to chop down the 12-point deficit the Sixers had fallen into in his absence.

“I knew when I went in at halftime that they were checking [him] out and that he was up and moving, and they did say, ‘We’re seeing,’” Sixers head coach Nick Nurse said. “Like, they didn’t rule him out yet. So it just took ‘em all the way to the end there to get him ruled back in, or ruled in, or allow him to play, whatever it is.”

“I didn't see the fall, so I don't really know,” Maxey said. “But nothing with Joel surprises me now, you know?”

That’s it — the razor’s edge on which the Sixers franchise seems to be perpetually balancing.

Embiid can do things that few other players in the history of the sport can do; Philadelphia outscored opponents by nine points per 100 possessions with him on the floor during the regular season, and had won 32 of the 40 games he’d appeared in this season before Game 1. He is good enough to make you believe that anything is possible when he is available. He has also been unavailable often enough, and has gone down in a heap in a horrifying scene often enough, to make persisting in that belief the kind of Herculean task that can take years off of your life. (And if you don’t believe me, just ask a Sixers fan.)

He keeps getting up, though, and while he didn’t look 100% after his fall — he shot 2-for-11 from the floor in the second half, with many of his shots coming up short — he was still good enough to help turn the tide back in Philly’s favor.

His presence helped create openings for Maxey (21 of his game-high 33 in the second half) and Kyle Lowry (12 of his 18 points in the third quarter alone) to get downhill and compromise the Knicks’ coverage. His defense made multiple Knicks drivers see ghosts, peeling out of dribble penetration in favor of kickouts and resets; New York shot just 18-for-45 in the paint in Game 1.

And his passing — four assists in the second half, including a honey of a half-court bounce pass in transition — breathed new life into a Sixers offense that had gone stagnant.

This was what the Knicks expected when they saw Embiid crumple to the deck: that he’d get back up, and just keep coming.

“The thing is, it’s like, look, you can’t win an MVP without being a great player,” Thibodeau said. “You know, we know how good he is. When he goes down, you always … you’re thinking a guy’s coming back. You don’t think he’s staying out.”

“Our mentality was just, you know, to run,” Knicks swingman Josh Hart said. “That’s just how we play; I think that's what we’re, you know, very successful at. That play didn’t change our outlook on the game or anything.”

That lack of let-up served the Knicks well, as they maintained a dogged pursuit of the incredible number of shots they were missing — 23 offensive rebounds, one off a season high, leading to 26 second-chance points — and just kept firing away. Their persistence was rewarded when Hart — whom the Sixers liberally helped off of throughout Game 1, daring him to knock down shots in what he later termed “disrespect” — knocked down three huge 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to keep the Sixers at bay on a night when Brunson struggled with his shot (an 8-for-26 outing that made Hart say, “Damn”) and still take a 1-0 series lead.

“He was a monster throughout,” Thibodeau said of Hart, who finished with 22 points, 13 rebounds and two assists in 42 minutes. “Big rebounds, tough defense, hustle plays, big shots at the end, coming up with loose balls. That’s what this is. You’ve got to show toughness.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 20: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers and Mitchell Robinson #23 of the New York Knicks fight for the loose ball during the second half in game one of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 20, 2024 in New York City. The New York Knicks defeated the Philadelphia 76ers 111-104. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Joel Embiid was hobbled in the second half, but still made hustle plays. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Embiid showed his toughness in getting off the mat to re-enter the fray after that frightening fall. The focus now will be on how his left leg holds up with one day between Saturday’s Game 1 and Monday’s Game 2.

How Embiid was feeling after the game wasn’t immediately clear. He declined to speak with reporters. All Nurse could offer was, “Just like after every game, we’ll assess him and see how he’s doing.” The coach did say, though, that Philly had no plans to shut down the MVP as a precautionary measure.

“Listen, he’s really a warrior and he’s battling,” Nurse said. “And I think he absolutely wants to play. But let’s see how he turns out here tonight.”

That’s good, because if anyone needed a reminder of just how much the Sixers need Embiid, Game 1 offered it. The Knicks survived a down night from Brunson because of strength-in-numbers performances from the likes of Hart, Robinson, Deuce McBride and Bojan Bogdanović; if Philly couldn’t survive 11 minutes without the big fella, it sure seems like anything less than his full-tilt, full-time best just won’t be enough.