Joel Embiid

With Embiid back after difficult time away, Sixers have most promising night in months 

Tuesday was the Sixers' most encouraging night in quite a while.

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As usual, Joel Embiid’s self-assessment Tuesday wasn’t the kindest.

Kelly Oubre Jr. had a much higher opinion of the superstar center’s return from a left lateral meniscus injury.

“It’s everything,” Oubre said after the Sixers’ 109-105 victory vs. the Thunder. “The hype is real. He’s one of the most dominant players in the NBA and that we’ve ever seen. 

“He was a little rusty tonight, obviously getting his conditioning and his footing back. But at the end of the day, he was still able to be effective in the game and allow us to get that win.”

Embiid’s impact was typically multi-faceted in a 24-point, seven-assist, six-rebound night. 

And beyond the win and his performance, he was glad just to be playing basketball again following a little over two months on the sidelines. 

“For some reason, this one was disappointing, it was depressing,” he said. “It took me a while to get over it and I still haven’t gotten over it. Just got to take it day by day, look at the positive. I’m back, so hopefully things will get better and I’ll get back to myself.” 

Embiid said his family’s helped him through this difficult period personally. 

“Just looking at their faces, my wife and young (son) Arthur,” he said. “Waking up every single day, taking him to school, picking him up, playing with him all day. That kind of takes your mind away from everything that’s going on. And then obviously, watching the games at night, you get pissed off because you feel like you could help and you could do something. 

“But it’s all about family. Basketball obviously means a lot, and I love it and I love to play. It’s the best thing for me. But family also comes first, and that’s the thing that got me through it.”

On the court, Embiid’s focus was on trying to “make everybody’s job easier, try to provide space.”

That doesn’t mean everything was suddenly fluid and effortless. Embiid’s stints were far briefer than his norm and he went 29 minutes total. The reigning MVP was clearly wiped out at times. He fidgeted with his knee brace on the bench, rolling up his leg sleeve and certainly not exuding maximum comfort. 

He also played alongside Kyle Lowry, Buddy Hield and Cameron Payne for the first time. 

“I didn’t know he could pass like that,” Payne said. “I knew he could pass, but he invites traps so he can get his guys shots. A lot of superstars don’t do that, so that’s big time. Shout out to Joel for that.”

The 38-year-old Lowry learned more about Embiid as the night unfolded, too. 

“I think Kyle is able to do some things on the fly, even though we’ve never gone through them,” Sixers head coach Nick Nurse said. “And we have a lot of moments where we’ll say, ‘Hey, remember when we used to run this?’

“Like tonight, I was like, ‘If you come off there with some pace, you can hit him in the pocket.’ And he goes, ‘Oh yeah, like Serge (Ibaka).’ I was like, ‘Yeah. He’s going to be in that pocket and he’s going to knock those down.’ … Kyle’s an incredible screener. I’ve got to get into some packages where he’s screening to free Joel up. And I saw a zillion missed spacing things that we’ve got to fix, too. Hopefully we can get to some of that.”

Embiid committed six turnovers and called his outing “extremely careless.” Nurse described the Sixers’ offense as “super clunky.” 

Still, there were positive signs for the Sixers outside of Embiid being an incredible individual talent. Lowry fed Embiid for one of those bread-and-butter jumpers late in the first quarter. 

With the Sixers trailing in the fourth quarter and Embiid back for his final stretch, Lowry set a physical, persistent cross screen on OKC big man Jaylin Williams. Though Embiid couldn’t manage a post-up, Lowry’s screen enabled him to get a touch at the elbow and eventually draw two free throws. He shot 8 for 8 at the foul line in the fourth.

Embiid didn’t defend like a tired, rusty player late in the fourth period. He made sound decisions protecting the rim and picked up two impressive steals. 

On the first theft, Embiid sniffed out an Aaron Wiggins backdoor cut and intercepted Williams’ pass.

On the second, he poked the ball from Josh Giddey in isolation with under 30 seconds left. 

Moving forward, Embiid said, “It’s all about how the knee responds. … I’ve got to take care of myself and I’ve got to stay healthy.”

Thanks to his presence, Tuesday night was the Sixers’ most promising in quite a while. 

“It’s like the first day of school again, right? You’re coming back from spring break or winter break and you know you’ve got your friend back,” Oubre said. “He’s the cool guy in the 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 just polish the pieces around it so that we can be a well-oiled machine.”

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