Analysis | Joel Embiid is back. Can he give the East’s playoff race a jolt?

Analysis | Joel Embiid is back. Can he give the East’s playoff race a jolt?

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

Joel Embiid’s first game action for the Philadelphia 76ers in more than two months culminated with a game-deciding stop: Matched up against Oklahoma City Thunder guard Josh Giddey with less than 30 seconds remaining in a one-possession game, the reigning NBA MVP snatched an ill-advised crossover dribble and took off in transition. Fouled before he could finish the layup on the other end, Embiid converted a pair of free throws to help put away a 109-105 victory Tuesday at Wells Fargo Center.

The contest between the 76ers and Thunder unfolded with less than perfect attendance: Philadelphia’s Tyrese Maxey (hip) and Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (quad) and Jalen Williams (ankle) sat out with minor injuries. But those absences only brightened the spotlight on Embiid, who posted 24 points (on 6-for-14 shooting), seven assists, six rebounds and three steals in 29 minutes. His endgame pickpocketing of Giddey brought the home crowd to its feet and, perhaps more importantly, injected a jolt of energy into what has been a forgettable final lap of the Eastern Conference playoff race.

With the No. 1 seed Boston Celtics sailing in front of the competition and the No. 2 Milwaukee Bucks still working out the kinks following a midseason coaching change, the East’s landscape has lacked juice since Embiid underwent surgery to address a lateral meniscus injury in his left knee in early February. The Cleveland Cavaliers, currently occupying the third seed, and the New York Knicks (fifth) have been hampered by injuries to Donovan Mitchell and Julius Randle, respectively, while the conference’s high volume of basement-dwellers ensured there wouldn’t be any interest around the play-in tournament cut line. The Orlando Magic (fourth) joined the playoff mix ahead of schedule and the Miami Heat (seventh), the East’s reigning champion, can never be counted out, but Embiid’s absence robbed the conference of its biggest personality while severely undermining one of the top threats to the Celtics and Bucks.

“I just wanted to come back,” Embiid said in a postgame interview with TNT. “I think we have a chance even with the level that I’m at. I’m only going to get better. This [injury] was probably the hardest, by far, especially mentally.”

When Embiid fell to the court against the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 30, the 76ers were the East’s No. 5 seed, just 2½ games out of second place. After Tuesday’s win, they hold the No. 8 seed, two games back of the Indiana Pacers in sixth and on track for a play-in tournament spot. The 76ers’ quality of play plummeted without their franchise center: They dropped from 14th to 22nd in offensive efficiency and from 12th to 24th in defensive efficiency while posting an 11-18 record. There has been little to savor for Philadelphia’s fans recently, aside from a thrilling victory in the team’s first game against James Harden since the disgruntled guard was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers in October.

Standings slippage was only one element of the injury fallout: Embiid missed so much time that he is no longer eligible to win MVP, all-NBA honors or his third straight scoring title, despite averaging a career-high 35.0 points per game. He was also stuck as a bystander during February’s All-Star Game and in the wake of Philadelphia’s many trade deadline and buyout market moves. Patrick Beverley and Marcus Morris are gone, replaced by Buddy Hield, Kyle Lowry and Cam Payne.

Tuesday’s win suggested Embiid will need to make good use of the final 11 days of the regular season. He was already tugging on his shorts, the universal sign of fatigue, just a few minutes into the first quarter, and he couldn’t find the range on his outside shot. Chemistry with his new teammates must be developed on the fly: He sailed a pass into the stands trying to find Lowry cutting to the hoop, one of six turnovers on the night. Embiid’s endurance and defensive activity on the perimeter, which both left a lot to be desired, should improve as he shakes off the rust.

“Where I thought [Embiid ] really impacted [the game] was defensively late,” 76ers Coach Nick Nurse said. “He looked pretty good for not playing for a couple months, that’s for sure. … Normally, I would say it’s going to take a bit [for him to get up to speed], but it wouldn’t surprise me here if in one more game or two that he’s ready to roll. He’s lost some weight. He’s worked really hard to maintain his conditioning.”

Though he wore a brace and a sleeve on his left knee, Embiid moved assertively and fluidly on offense and wasn’t shy about creating contact. His midrange jumper looked sharp at times, he drew regular double teams from the Thunder’s defense, and he earned 12 trips to the free throw line that helped fuel a 76ers comeback. Reintroducing Embiid’s wide range of skills into a mix that includes Maxey’s dynamic attacking game, Tobias Harris’s complementary scoring, Hield’s floor-spacing ability and Lowry’s veteran savvy makes Philadelphia infinitely more watchable and more dangerous as a postseason commodity.

Suddenly, the race for the No. 6 seed among Indiana, Miami and Philadelphia is worth tracking on a nightly basis. Philadelphia’s remaining schedule could help its cause: Four of its remaining six games come against lottery teams, and Thursday’s game against Miami will be crucial in the seeding race. If the 76ers can steal a road win, they would increase their chances of claiming a guaranteed playoff spot or home-court advantage in a No. 7 vs. No. 8 play-in game. With a loss, Philadelphia would very likely land as the No. 8 seed, meaning it would need to go on the road for its first play-in game before potentially hosting a second play-in game against the No. 9 Chicago Bulls or No. 10 Atlanta Hawks.

The 76ers are 1-3 against the Celtics and 0-3 against the Bucks, so a late climb up to the No. 6 seed would qualify as the dream scenario. If that doesn’t materialize, Philadelphia should hope to draw Indiana in the play-in tournament and Milwaukee in the first round. The Pacers rank 24th in defensive efficiency and have no good options to counter Embiid inside, while the Heat eliminated the 76ers from the 2022 playoffs and boast all-star center Bam Adebayo.

Meanwhile, the Celtics rank first in offense, third in defense and first in point differential this season, and they have a deep and experienced frontcourt rotation to throw at Embiid. Additionally, Boston has eliminated Philadelphia from the 2018, 2020 and 2023 playoffs, winning 12 of 15 games with Embiid on the court in those series. Let’s not forget: A first-round showdown between the Bucks’ new coach, Doc Rivers, and his former team, the 76ers, would make for great theater.

Embiid’s injury presents at least two blessings in disguise: He should enter the playoffs mostly free from the inflated expectations that have undone the 76ers in recent years, and he should be relatively fresh given that he’s logged fewer than 1,200 minutes this season. The prevailing narratives around Embiid’s inability to lead a team to the Eastern Conference finals — that Philadelphia can’t handle the pressure, and that nagging injury issues and accumulating fatigue will eventually sabotage its superstar’s performance — may not apply this year. Considering the challenging circumstances, Embiid and the 76ers are best cast as spoilers, and an early exit in the play-in tournament or the first round shouldn’t engender the same vitriol as their infamous second-round collapses of the past.

For once, Embiid enters the postseason without much to lose.

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