It's time for Joel Embiid to return.
That was actually going to be the first sentence of the column regardless of Monday night's outcome in Game 2 of the 76ers opening-round playoff series against Miami.
If the Sixers won, taking the heart out of the Heat with another comeback, then the series would be in hand and it is a good spot for Embiid to get back in the flow and regain his game conditioning with the later rounds in mind.
But if the Sixers lost at home, especially if their defense was found wanting, then it was time for Embiid to come back with the focus entirely on this round.
Embiid is out with a fracture in the orbital bone area of his left eye. He has been outfitted with a mask to protect the area and, having passed the league's concussion protocol, has been cleared to return to full team activities. That includes playing in games. The prognosis at the time of the injury was that Embiid would miss two-to-four weeks. This Wednesday, as the Sixers practice on their day off in Miami, will be exactly three weeks.
That mathematics works pretty well, particularly after studying the math of Monday's box score and noticing that the Heat, in a desperate situation, were able to shoot nearly 50 percent from the field and hold on for a 113-103 win that evened the series. Miami led by as many as 16 points before the Sixers put on a fourth-quarter run that very nearly pulled out the victory. But they couldn't get the late stops they needed, the kind that are a little easier with a 7-foot center protecting the rim.
As deflating as the loss was for the Sixers, it was an impressive showing by Miami. No one cared to admit this was a do-or-don't game for the Heat, but the facts of the opener overshadowed all the standard clichés about a series not beginning until a team suffers a home loss.
The Sixers so thoroughly ran the Heat out of the building in Game 1, with a 74-point second half and perimeter shooting that was from another planet, that Miami would have to make a stand on Monday night, even if just for confidence, and not an actual win. Another 30-point loss and the Heat wouldn't be able to pretend even to themselves that the series hadn't begun.
"We can't go into the game saying, 'Well, they're not going to make those shots again,'" veteran Dwyane Wade said. "They made those shots. They went in. We have to continue to make them tougher."
Sixers coach Brett Brown predicted correctly before the game that Miami had no choice but to chase his team beyond the three-point line – where the 76ers had made 18 of 28 shots in the opener. The Heat did that effectively in the first half, and the pace was more like what the Heat were looking for; a little more deliberate, taking away some of the speed and athleticism advantage of the Sixers. It was the formula that Miami coach Erik Spoelstra described before the game.
"It would be crazy not to expect them to do the same things (as in Game 1)," Spoelstra said. "It's whose game gets to who more often. Their speed, quickness and shooting got to us much more than our force and power got to them."
Without Embiid, the Sixers had trouble matching the physical nature of the game. At the half, it was a 14-point lead for Miami and the Sixers had been held to just 42 points. It wasn't all the absence of the three-point shot, but that was a lot of it, as they made just 2-of-18 in the half. Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Ersan Ilyasova, who combined to make nine three-pointers in the first game, were 0-for-11 in the half.
So, it looked bad, but it didn't look all that great in the previous game when the Sixers trailed by four at the half. Not as much of a deficit, but if history repeated, then the Heat would tire in the second half and the Sixers would regain their traction. For a team that could score 74 points in a half, what's a measly 14-point margin to overcome?
That was the question posed at halftime on Monday when nothing less than the series hung in the balance waiting for the answer. If Miami held on, nothing had been decided yet. If not, then regardless of the clichés, the series would not only have begun, it would be over.