Opinion: Sixers can only go as far as Joel Embiid’s injured knee can carry them in NBA playoffs

Most of us have never had a torn meniscus, much less tried to play basketball on it, much less carried the playoff hopes of an NBA franchise on it. You can imagine it does not feel great, particularly when those knees support all 7 feet, 280 pounds of Joel Embiid for 35 minutes against a tough-as-nails Atlanta Hawks team in a game that the Philadelphia 76ers absolutely had to have.

But to any extent Embiid is feeling the pain this postseason, however much ice he has to use, whatever treatment he needs to deploy to get on the floor, it is clear the 76ers have no other option. There is Embiid, or there is elimination.

It has been difficult to tell how much (if at all) Embiid has been bothered by that knee in the first two games of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the upstart Hawks. In a season-saving 118-102 win that evened the series at 1-1, Embiid had arguably the best playoff performance of his career with 40 points and 13 rebounds and impacted the game defensively in myriad ways, including a few possessions where he contained Hawks star Trae Young on perimeter switches.

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In other words, if the Hawks were counting on something less than a 100% Embiid to give them an edge in this series, they were sorely mistaken. And if the 76ers have aspirations of holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy in July, they’ll need whatever is left of that meniscus to hang on for dear life through the rigors of at least 11 more games and likely many more than that.

? 40 PTS FOR EMBIID [email protected]’s #NBAPlayoffs career high powers the @sixers in Game 2.. Series tied 1-1 as it shifts to Atlanta, with Game 3 on Friday at 7:30pm/et on ESPN. #ThatsGamepic.twitter.com/3SJxIU7AlW

"I want to win it all," Embiid said, which is both an obvious sentiment in the middle of a playoff run and an explanation for why he’s gutting this out despite an injury that often requires surgery or knocks players out for weeks.

But regardless of how he was feeling, Embiid had everything working in Game 2: The fadeaway jumpers, the step-throughs, the hesitation moves that lead to easy dunks. He made 13-of-25 field goals and completely neutralized Hawks center Clint Capela, who has been one of the NBA’s best post defenders all season. He made 6-9 rookie Onyeka Okongwu look comically small when he was asked to defend Embiid 1-on-1.

With seemingly minimal effort, Embiid got wherever he wanted on the court. Even on one good knee, he made scoring 40 points look laughably easy.

"Everybody in the league needs help against Embiid," Hawks forward Danilo Gallinari said of his team’s failures to make him uncomfortable for even a second of this series.

Despite missing the last game of the 76ers’ first-round series against the Washington Wizards and being listed on the injury report as questionable for the first two games against the Hawks, Embiid has played 38 and 35 minutes, respectively, in this series.

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