This time of year, injuries are a fraught subject in the world of the Philadelphia 76ers. Dating back to 2018, when Joel Embiid missed the first two games of their first-round series, wore a mask for his playoff debut and called himself "The Phantom of the Process," they have dealt with some sort of injury to a star player every postseason.
It is not optimal, then, that both Embiid and James Harden are working through injuries with a week and a half left in the regular season. Embiid sat in the second half of last Wednesday's win against the Chicago Bulls and missed Monday's game against the Denver Nuggets because of right calf tightness. Harden missed the Bulls game and the three games that followed because of left Achilles soreness. Both returned in a 116-108 win against the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday, but neither is as healthy as the Sixers would like them to be.
After the game, Harden told reporters that his Achilles had been bugging him for months.
"I don't know where it came from. It's been bothering me for some months, I would say," Harden said after finishing with 15 points and 12 assists in 38 minutes in Wednesday night's 116-108 win over the Dallas Mavericks. "I just wanted to continue to play on it, and there was one point to where the last game I played, [it was] just really unbearable so I couldn't even go out there.
"Six games left to finish the season off, finish off strong, then we get another week to prepare. I felt like tonight was the game to come back."
Harden indicated he's going to have to continue to monitor and maintain his Achilles moving forward.
"After the game, I went into the weight room and did some tendon-loading and things like that, for the Achilles, my lower body, my calves, things like that," Harden said. "Tomorrow I'll do something, after the game [against Toronto], Friday I'll do something, it's just making sure I'm on it."
Harden also said that he "felt OK," via The Athletic. "Towards the end, it got a little sore but I expected that."
He added, "I don't think it's just going to completely go away, but you know, I'm out there."
Embiid, meanwhile, told reporters that he felt "good enough," via KYW Newsradio. "Obviously, I didn't play my best game tonight but I'm glad we got the win. So, it's all about trying to keep building and making sure everything is right for what matters."
How did Joel Embiid’s right calf feel last night?— Dave Uram (@MrUram) March 30, 2023
“Good enough.” #Sixers @KYWNewsradio pic.twitter.com/uhbx22Lfml
In a walk-off interview with ESPN, Embiid said that he is "not at my best" but is "getting there" and will be "fine and ready to go" by playoff time.
"It's all about staying healthy," Embiid said. "Whatever it takes. Even if it takes missing games or whatever to make sure that we get there healthy. Not just for me, but for the whole team. That's what we're going to do. We're focused on the playoffs. It's all about the playoffs, and we've got to make sure we do everything possible to get there to give ourselves a chance."
The Sixers should unquestionably prioritize playoff health over regular-season wins. They want to compete for a championship, and, while they're not quite locked into the No. 3 seed in the East, that is where they are likely to finish. There are six games left on their regular-season schedule, and they have a 50-26 record. The Boston Celtics (52-24) are two full games ahead of them, and the Cleveland Cavaliers (48-29) are 2.5 games behind them.
Typically, though, teams want to be in a good rhythm heading into the playoffs. Sometimes, that means increasing stars' minutes now. While Embiid only played 33 minutes against Dallas, Harden played a team-high 38.
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"We believe we ramp up now, not down, because we want to build up minutes," Sixers coach Doc Rivers said before the game, via PhillyVoice. "We want our guys, our main guys to be able to play 38 to 40 good minutes, instead of 35 good minutes and five tired minutes ... we are probably way more focused on conditioning than we are rest."
It's worth monitoring how Embiid and Harden look down the stretch, as well as whether or not they miss any games, how many minutes they play and what's going on in the standings. Beyond the normal rest vs. rust conundrum, Philadelphia has to think about seeding, conditioning and establishing a playoff-ready rotation.
The Sixers would surely rather deal with this now than have these issues pop up in the middle of a playoff series. In a few weeks, all of the injury angst might seem overblown. At the moment, though, the team appears to be in an uncomfortably familiar situation.