Joel Embiid’s 76ers return holds promise of a recharge in playoff hunt

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Joel Embiid’s 76ers return holds promise of a recharge in playoff hunt

PHILADELPHIA — The 7-foot, 280-pound beacon of hope for the Philadelphia 76ers walked out to the court at Wells Fargo Arena about an hour before tipoff, greeted by eager chants of “MVP, MVP.” He wore a brace on his left knee, noticeable enough to jut out from underneath his pair of white tights. He went through his usual pregame workout, now a sense of comfort after two long months away.

Then Joel Embiid made his long-awaited return, a sometimes inspiring 29-minute outing that felt as refreshing as anything the Sixers have experienced in more than two months. It was, finally, a return to normalcy that the franchise has been waiting on since Embiid went down on Jan. 30, and that looked uncertain after he underwent surgery in his left knee a week later. When the reigning MVP goes down, it leaves a hole that no one else can fill.

Tuesday night, Embiid came back to a team that desperately needed him. His return meant nothing less than a recharge for the 76ers’ season. They had been one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams over the first three-plus months, with Embiid playing at a historic level, and now they have him back again as they prepare for what will be a tricky road just to get into the playoffs.

Even at the rawest stage of his comeback, the rustiest he’ll be as he ramps back up the rest of this season for the playoff run to come, Embiid still provided moments of awe. He moved lethargically at times but gained steam throughout the evening.

It culminated in a possession that iced the 109-105 win for the 76ers over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Nursing a one-point lead with about a half-minute to go, Embiid found himself at the elbow, guarding Thunder wing Josh Giddey. As Giddey tried to take him off the dribble, Embiid poked his left hand into his pocket and stripped the ball away, then started a one-man fast break, drew a foul and hit two free throws to extend the advantage.

“It’s like the first day of school again,” Kelly Oubre Jr. said afterward. “You’re kinda coming back from spring break or winter break, and you got your friend back. He’s the cool guy in class that we’ve definitely been missing. He’s been out for some time. But that’s our team. We built this team around him, and we have to continue to polish the pieces around it so we can be a well-oiled machine.”

Embiid moved well enough — though sluggish at times — as he played for the first time in more than two months. Though he discounted his performance and his movement, he said his conditioning needed work and would take more time than usual to find its level.

Still, the numbers, at least were nothing to ignore, even if they were not his standard. Embiid scored 24 points, grabbed six rebounds — both below his sky-high season averages — and had seven assists. The Sixers needed all of it to push past the Thunder, who were missing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams.

Philadelphia was overjoyed just to have him out there again. They were 29-17 and in fourth place in the East when he went down, and went 11-18 without him.

It was cathartic for Embiid, too. This absence, he said, was unlike any he has had during his decade in the NBA.

The injury — a torn meniscus in his left knee — and the time away — 62 days since his last game — affected him more profoundly. His mental health suffered, he said.

“Usually when I have injuries I just tell myself onto the next one, get better, I’m gonna fix it,” he said. “But this one took a toll mentally. Being depressed and it was not a good one. Still not where I’m supposed to be, especially mentally. But I just love to play. I love basketball. And I want to play. Any chance that I can be out there, I’m going to take it.”

He is still struggling in his return, he said, and not quite whole. He relied on his family to pull him through his difficulties, and to cope while he sat out.

But the sediment has not cleared. He is not over the injury, he said, or the impact of it. And he is wary of getting hurt again.

Joel Embiid, who scored 24 points in his return from knee surgery, defends against the Thunder’s Jaylin Williams. (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

Embiid said he would treat this return gingerly. He prided himself on returning 56 days after surgery — the exact eight-week milestone his recovery prescribed. He will need time to build his conditioning. Back-to-back games are unsettling. He will be cautious, when necessary.

“I’ve learned a lot over the years and I got to take care of myself,” he said. “Got to stay healthy. Because I still have a long career ahead of me. So I think he’s all about now and the future. So if something doesn’t feel right, they’re gonna shut it down.”

The Sixers missed him dearly and would be loathe to be without him again. Their spot in the playoffs is tenuous. They are 41-35, eighth in the East, and sit two games back of the Indiana Pacers for the No. 6 seed and a guaranteed spot in the postseason, with just six games remaining. The Play-In Tournament likely awaits and they’ll have to win at least once to get in.

That path, however, got easier with Embiid’s return. He is dominant enough to bulldoze teams that could stand in Philadelphia’s way.

He’s talented enough that the 76ers could serve as a spoiler if and when they get in. The Boston Celtics ran roughshod over the NBA this season — no team has a better record — but that season-long performance may just net them a matchup with Embiid in the first round. Or it could put the Milwaukee Bucks, shaky all season, at risk of another opening-round disaster.

The 76ers will also have to go through their assimilation. The roster is full of players who were not in Philadelphia the last time Embiid was healthy. Buddy Hield was still in Indiana, Kyle Lowry in Miami and Cameron Payne in Milwaukee. Tyrese Maxey has missed two straight games due to hip tightness.

When Nick Nurse pulled Lowry into his office before the game Tuesday to tell him of Embiid’s impending return, Lowry met him with confusion. He didn’t know how to play with Embiid, Lowry said in Nurse’s recounting. Their feeling-out process began hours later.

“I want to win, but at the same time, I just want to just want to play,” Lowry said. “Wherever that takes us, I’m fine with it. The goal is to win. We got a lot of good players on the same (team) so we just got to find a way to get on the same page. We only got about six games left. We gotta find a way to get on the same page. It’s hard to win, especially when you talk about the big things. It’s hard when you play with new guys that you haven’t played, but anything is possible.”

If Embiid is healthy, he can propel the Sixers forward. But his return minutes were metered Embiid. He played five fewer minutes than his season average. He took just 14 shots, though he had 12 free throws, and turned it over six times. Oubre provided the fourth-quarter spark with 17 of his game-high 25 points.

But Embiid impressed, too. He shut down Luguentz Dort’s drive to the rim with 2:48 left. He pulled down an offensive rebound with 40 seconds remaining and drew a foul. He stopped Giddey and sealed the win. Even if he seemed unmoved with his efforts, Embiid still found moments to declare that he was back again.

“He looked pretty good for not playing for a couple of months,” Nurse said. “That’s for sure.”

 (Top photo of Joel Embiid defending Luguentz Dort: Eric Hartline / USA Today)