Joel Embiid doesn’t know if he will feel better.
He certainly knows he has to play better.
He’s battling an illness, looking like someone who’d rather be in bed than on the court. But the Philadelphia 76ers need their All-Star center, so Embiid is trying to tell himself that he has to dig deeper to find more energy, even if it’s only for three hours.
“You know, can’t control my physical condition, but I can also control how much I push myself and I try to do that,” Embiid said. “But I’ve just got to do more.”
If he can’t, he’ll have all the time he needs to rest.
With Embiid faltering, the 76ers try to fight off elimination and send the Eastern Conference semifinals back to Toronto when they host the Raptors for Game 6 on Thursday.
Portland will also try to send a series the distance on Thursday, hosting Game 6 against Denver, which has won two straight for a 3-2 lead behind Nikola Jokic, its dominant center.
Embiid is supposed to be a dominant center, too.
But he hasn’t performed at anywhere near that level since Game 3, when he had 33 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks as the 76ers romped to a 21-point victory and a 2-1 lead. He’s been unable to find that level again while missing valuable court time because of his illness, managing just 11 in Game 4 and then 13 points and eight turnovers in the Raptors’ 125-89 rout on Tuesday.
The 76ers used to be able to wait out Embiid’s woes. His foot injuries delayed the start of his career by two seasons, but that was back in Philadelphia’s “Process” era when planning for the future superseded playing for the present.
They need him now against the second-seeded Raptors and the red-hot Kawhi Leonard, especially because fellow All-Star Ben Simmons is struggling, too. But it’s Embiid taking the bulk of the beating from fans and media, and coach Brett Brown doesn’t think that’s right.
“I think it’s grossly unfair, some of the criticism that he gets. I don’t understand that,” Brown said. “And so it’s not ideal, you wished he were at shootaround, you wished he were in film sessions, but he had a temperature for the last few days that’s kept him in bed.”
Embiid isn’t giving up yet. He told rapper and Raptors fan Drake he would see him back in Toronto for Game 7, and knows what he needs to do.
“I’ve just got to be myself,” he said.
A look at Thursday’s games:
RAPTORS AT 76ERS
Toronto leads 3-2. Game 6, 8 p.m. EDT, ESPN.
NEED TO KNOW: Toronto’s 36-point win in Game 5 was its largest in franchise playoff history. The Raptors need one victory to reach the East finals for the second time in three years, having fallen to Cleveland there in 2016.
INJURY WATCH: Pascal Siakam looked back to full strength in Game 5 with 25 points, after struggling with a calf injury in Game 4.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Embiid’s face. He vowed to be back to his normal fun-loving self in front of his Philadelphia fans.
“If you see me smile that means I’m doing what I’m supposed to do,” he said after Game 5, “and I intend to be doing that in two days.”
PRESSURE IS ON: Simmons. Embiid at least has an excuse for his struggles. But there’s no reason Simmons should be averaging just 9.4 points in the series, and probably no way the 76ers can win it unless he improves.
NUGGETS AT TRAIL BLAZERS
Nuggets lead 3-2. Game 6, 10:30 p.m. EDT, ESPN.
NEED TO KNOW: The Nuggets have a chance to make it to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2009. “Everyone on the team wants to win, and when we have that mindset, we’re a pretty dangerous team,” Nuggets guard Will Barton said.
INJURY WATCH: Jamal Murray has been hampered by a sore shoulder and an aching right thigh. Still, he’s hitting off-balanced shot after off-balanced shot all series. “I’ve been doing it my whole life,” Murray casually said.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Nuggets forward Paul Millsap has found the fountain of youth in this series. The 34-year-old is coming off a Game 5 in which he had 24 points. His presence also has been a calming influence for the Nuggets. “You can see he doesn’t have emotions. When things are not going good, he gets us together. When things are going good, he keeps talking with us,” Jokic said. “It means a lot to me, to be honest. He helps me a lot, just to watch him and learn from him, how he’s dealing with situations.”
PRESSURE IS ON: Blazers guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who were a combined minus-47 in Game 5. “We know that we’re more than capable of getting it done in the next game,” Lillard said. “We don’t feel like we’ve played our best basketball yet and with our back against the wall, we don’t really have a choice. Our mindset is just to get the next one, take care of home, and make it back here.”