Joel Embiid's stellar return gives 76ers hope in a suddenly vulnerable Eastern Conference playoff field



With around seven minutes remaining in Joel Embiid’s return to the floor Tuesday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the reigning MVP had a subtle yet significant moment of confusion. After catching a pass from Tobias Harris at the top of the key, he turned around and held the ball out seemingly expecting to execute one of the dribble handoffs that made his partnership with Tyrese Maxey so deadly early in the season.

Of course, Maxey missed Tuesday’s game. Aside from Harris, Embiid shared the floor with Kelly Oubre Jr., who he has played a total of 27 games with, Nic Batum, who he has played 24 games with, and Kyle Lowry, who played his first game alongside Embiid on Tuesday. With no handoff available, Embiid passed it inside to Harris, who was blocked in traffic by Lu Dort.

The play was a reminder of the steep learning curve these 76ers are facing. This is not a readymade contender that had simply spent the past two months awaiting its final piece. No, the 76ers are a mishmash of several different iterations of their own team attempting to forge a new identity in the few days that remain between now and the postseason. There will be successes. Lowry, who has worked with plenty of centers that excel in the mid-range, looked comfortable making pocket passes to Embiid right away. Buddy Hield eagerly improvised with Embiid on the handoff game as well. But moments of confusion like the one above are unavoidable under these circumstances. The 76ers are very much still figuring out what exactly they have.

That would be a death sentence for a lot of teams. It doesn’t need to be for Philadelphia because of what came next. Embiid, playing on a minutes-restriction he’d already exceeded, took a rest soon after this moment. He returned with 4:15 remaining on the clock, already exhausted and dealing with a knee injury he would later describe as “probably the hardest by far” of his career. From that moment forward, he outscored the Thunder 8-5 to lead the 76ers to an improbable 109-105 victory in a game they trailed by as many as 13 points.

He did most of his work at the foul line, going 12-for-12 on the night and showing no hesitation physically despite his injury. His mid-range jumper was a bit rusty, but he sank it when he needed to. The biggest play of the night was also the most surprising considering his condition. With a bit less than 30 seconds remaining and Philadelphia clinging to a one-point lead, Embiid stole the ball from Giddey and took it the length of the court before being fouled.

In four minutes, even a compromised Embiid was able to swing an absolutely critical game in Philadelphia’s favor. That’s what having an MVP can do for even the most flawed of teams, and “flawed” is the best way to describe just about everyone in the Eastern Conference besides Boston right now.

The 76ers have only six games left on the schedule, but four of them come against the Pistons, Spurs, Grizzlies and Nets. They trail the No. 6-seeded Pacers by two games, and will face the No. 7-seeded Heat on Thursday. Philadelphia’s worst-case scenario is closing the regular season at No. 8. Even if they do, they’d need only to win a single play-in game to jump to No. 7 and avoid the Celtics in the first round.

Nobody else in the conference should scare Philadelphia with even a hobbled Embiid back on the floor. The No. 2-seeded Bucks are now 15-14 under Doc Rivers and just lost at home to the Wizards. The Cavaliers are dealing with injuries themselves at No. 3, and the No. 5 seeded Knicks may or may not get Julius Randle and OG Anunoby in time for the postseason. The No. 4-seeded Magic have four starters and plenty of reserves who have never seen the postseason. Just about every non-Celtics team the 76ers might see in the playoffs has issues of their own.

But none of them have the reigning MVP, and only the Bucks have a player that could be described as Embiid’s equal. Yes, this is an injury-riddled team trying to generate chemistry on the fly and yes, the standings aren’t especially favorable at the moment. But as Embiid proved against the Thunder, having a single player who can stare down the opponent and think, “fine, I’ll do it myself,” remains arguably the most valuable weapon any team can have in a wide-open playoff field.





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