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Grotz: Joel Embiid runs out of gas again, as 76ers season is about to

PHILADELPHIA — With eight minutes left, the Knicks had the Sixers and Joel Embiid right where they wanted them.

It wasn’t so much the six-point lead for the New York Knicks, who got a club playoff record 47 points out of Jalen Brunson.

It was Embiid’s minutes. The Big Guy was borderline exhausted having played 38, a number not just the Knicks but everyone who knows anything about him realizes is almost “E” on the fuel gauge.

Coach Nick Nurse tried strategic timeouts to no avail. Embiid began playing further and further away from the basket, as he typically does when he’s fatigued. Technically that opened up space and allowed the Sixers to counter a Knicks defense doubling the center to make him give the ball up. But even when Embiid swung the ball, his teammates came up empty on shot after shot.

Kelly Oubre, of all Sixers, made the team’s last field goal with 5:04 remaining.

Their warning light on, the Sixers continued driving until Embiid sputtered out completely, taking his teammates with him in a 97-92 loss that drops them into a 3-1 hole in the best-of-7 series that resumes Tuesday at Madison Square Garden. The Sixers bricked their last 11 shots from the field, Embiid taking the last two.

Nurse learned what Brett Brown, Doc Rivers and guard James Harden had before him. In a close, competitive game, Embiid’s shelf life is 38 minutes. Maybe even 39. He played 44 minutes Sunday. He missed 12 of 19 shots and needed a dozen free throws to reach 27 points. That Nurse trusted backup big man Paul Reed enough to play him just four minutes was fairly revealing as well. General manager Daryl Morey said he scoured the available bigs right before the trade deadline but couldn’t find one. Morey than claimed he got the best available player in Buddy Hield. Who, by the way, did not play Sunday.

Let’s not forget that the Knicks were without Mitchell Robinson, the 7-0, 240-pound backup center who was productive in the first two games of the series. Robinson was scratched with a twisted ankle. Or that starting Knicks center Isaiah Hartenstein tried to foul out in the third quarter, committing five personals. Defending a fully fueled Embiid can make cowards of defenders all.

The piece de resistance was that Knicks small forward OG Anunoby, a 6-7, 240-pound forward, battled Embiid in the fourth quarter. Embiid got just one point and one rebound in the frame.

Nurse realized that Embiid was on the verge of exhaustion, and the temptation is to blame him for mismanaging the minutes. Nurse reasoned that if the Big Guy sat the Knicks would go off, just as they had when he rested in the first half. Coach thought about giving Embiid a rest, but not for long.

“He was feeling good and wanted to go,” Nurse said. “These games are all must-win, and we didn’t have a very good stretch when he was out in the first half, so we were willing to continue on.”

Only once has Embiid played more than 44 minutes in a playoff game, and that was against Nurse and the Toronto Raptors, when Kawhi Leonard hit a buzzer beater in Game 7 of their conference semifinal in 2019. Embiid hit 45 minutes that night. He was 25 years old then, and 30 now. And he’s not the only aging player in the Sixers’ lineup.

Guard Kyle Lowry is 38. Tobias Harris is 31. Oubre is 28. Sixth man Nick Batum is 35.

This is the kind of lineup that if you’re a 23-year-old rising star such as Tyrese Maxey, who scored 23 points in 43 minutes Sunday, you might want to look around and see if someone wants to throw an offer your way after the season. Maxey is due to become a restricted free agent.

Unless the Sixers find the fountain of youth in the next three games, it’s clear where they’re vulnerable. Skill is part of it but in this series, young legs are much more useful.

The Knicks turned up the tempo to win all three of their games in the series in the fourth quarter. Brunson (27 years old) played 43 minutes Sunday, Josh Hart (29) grabbed 17 rebounds in 46 minutes and Anunoby (26) scored 16 points, collected 14 rebounds and scored 16 points in 47 minutes.

The Sixers are fast becoming the East Coast version of the Los Angeles Lakers with 39-year-old living legend LeBron James. The formula is to get a double-digit lead, blow it in the fourth quarter and cross your fingers the opponent gives in, too. The Lakers are down 3-1 to the defending NBA champion Denver Nuggets in their first-round series.

“Yeah, I mean it’s tough especially playing all these minutes but yeah, it’s unfortunate,” Embiid said. “Your competitive nature is always going to take over and I felt like (the Knicks) always come back in the games in this series and I’ve got nothing to lose. I just pushed myself. Obviously, it didn’t work out the way I wanted it to but like I said, whatever it takes to win.”

To contact Bob Grotz, email

Source: Berkshire mont

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