With Embiid out, the 76ers are sliding toward a play-in round that could have several stars in 2024

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid speaks with members of the media at the NBA basketball team's practice facility, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, in Camden, N.J. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid speaks with members of the media at the NBA basketball team’s practice facility, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, in Camden, N.J. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Less than two months ago, Joel Embiid scored 70 points in a game.

He’s played twice since then, and this week his Philadelphia 76ers struggled to score 70 as a team.

At least they won that unsightly matchup, 79-73 over the New York Knicks. That snapped a three-game losing streak for Philadelphia. The previous game, the 76ers fell behind by 35 points in the second quarter of a home loss to New Orleans. Philadelphia is 7-15 since Embiid’s 70-point game, largely because of the knee operation that’s kept the reigning MVP off the court.

“It just seems like the list keeps getting longer every night and that’s not easy for anybody’s mentality or psyche, but I’m not giving no excuses,” said coach Nick Nurse, whose team was also without All-Star Tyrese Maxey the last four games. “There are some good players out there that need to play a heck of a lot better than they did.”

Nurse could at least take solace in the fact that Philadelphia rallied and only lost to the Pelicans by eight. Then the 76ers beat New York. But Philadelphia is now in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, just a half-game ahead of Indiana. So if the season ended now, the 76ers would be just one spot above the play-in round.

When the play-in round was created, it seemed like a way to keep more teams in postseason contention and create dramatic, single-elimination matchups between teams that aren’t likely to make lengthy playoff runs. But last season, a couple teams came out of the play-in tournament and stuck around for a while. Miami went all the way to the NBA Finals, and the Los Angeles Lakers made the conference finals.

Those two teams underscored the fact that there’s been a fair amount of glamour in this preliminary round since it began in 2021. That year, LeBron James and the Lakers faced Stephen Curry and Golden State with No. 7 seed in the West on the line.

Brooklyn — with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — was in the play-in tournament the following season. Then the Lakers and Heat had to get through it in 2023 before going on to bigger and better things.

Miami actually lost its play-in opener before beating Chicago in a winner-take-all battle for the No. 8 seed. Then the Heat knocked off Milwaukee, New York and Boston before losing in the Finals to Denver.

This season’s play-in round could be the most star studded yet. In the Western Conference alone, Luka Doncic, Irving and the Dallas Mavericks are currently in eighth place, with the Lakers and Warriors immediately behind them. Durant now plays for Phoenix, and the Suns are in sixth, just a game ahead of the cutoff for the play-in.

And if Philadelphia falls into the 7-10 range in the East, then Embiid could be in the play-in round as well. Imagine the drama if James, Curry, Doncic, Irving, Durant and Embiid were all facing the possibility of a quick elimination — while believing that if they can just make it past that first hurdle, their teams are capable of contending for the title.

Embiid, of course, still has to make it back. He had meniscus surgery on his knee and hasn’t played since Jan. 30. He said a couple weeks ago he’d try to play regardless of where the 76ers are in the standings, and he also was hopeful of being able to participate in the Summer Olympics during the offseason.

Philadelphia has dropped only eight of the 34 games Embiid has played in 2023-24. The 76ers have lost 11 since the start of February without their star big man.

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