Nick Nurse 'hopeful' Joel Embiid will suit up for Play-In Tournament matchup against Miami Heat

Keith Pompey, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Basketball

PHILADELPHIA — Nick Nurse shied away from saying it was definitive. Instead, he uttered the word hopeful.

The 76ers coach said he’s hopeful Joel Embiid will play against the Miami Heat in Wednesday’s NBA Play-In Tournament.

“Yeah, hopefully,” he said. “Not sure on anybody, but I’m hopeful.”

After Embiid tweaked his left knee Friday against the Orlando Magic, Nurse said he has zero concerns that the reigning MVP will lose aggressiveness for fear of injuring the knee.

That was Embiid’s fifth game back after being sidelined two months because of a torn meniscus. The seven-time All-Star missed Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Brooklyn Nets for what the team called precautionary reasons.

But Nurse said Embiid was a full participant at Monday’s practice. The coach added his movement and mobility were good.

“He was in good spirits,” Nurse said. “He was highly engaged. A lot of the things we were doing were super game-plan specific. He was locked in.”

That’s a good thing for the Sixers, who will have a tough time defeating the Heat without the 7-foot-2, 280-pounder.

Embiid is getting back to his normal dominant self, averaging 30.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.2 blocks in 30.5 minutes during the five games since his return.

The eighth-year veteran did not speak to the media Monday, but Kelly Oubre Jr. echoed what Nurse said about Embiid.

“He made shots,” Oubre said. “He looked normal. He looked like himself. But you could definitely tell the seriousness in his face, in his work ethic, and everything he’s doing in the way he’s carrying himself.

“He wants to win, so it’s good to see him moving, doing his thing.”

In his second game back from injury, Embiid faced the Heat and produced 29 points on 11-for-25 shooting — including 3 of 6 three-pointers — on April 4 in Miami.


Miami’s zone

The Sixers will need a big night from Embiid, but the Sixers also must contain Jimmy Butler and shoot well against the Heat’s zone defense. That’s easier than it sounds, considering they’ve struggled against Miami’s 2-3 zone, an approach that is tactically different from other squads.

“They really try to keep the ball from going to the corner, because of how high they pull their wing guys up,” Nurse said. “There’s certain things that they’re willing to live with that I think fall into an analytical mindset. But it’s a little different. You don’t (typically) see the wing guys covering up so high … And their communication is really good.

“They’re really talking about who’s going where, talking through cutters. They really seem to do a good job of getting matched up in it.”

‘Playoff Jimmy’

Meanwhile, Butler has been motivated to play against the Sixers since they traded him to the Heat on July 6, 2019.

He even averaged 27.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists as Miami ousted the Sixers in the second round of the 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals. Butler has also led the Heat to two NBA Finals appearances in four seasons, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2020 and the Denver Nuggets last June.

Known for clutch postseason performances, Butler was dubbed the nickname ”Playoff Jimmy.”

So what are the keys to defending the 6-8 small forward?

“I’m not giving that team no secrets,” Oubre said. “He’s smart. He watches this type of stuff and he gets fueled by anything. But he’s a great basketball player. I look forward to going against all the great basketball players in this league and adding my name up there.”


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