What Joel Embiid's return means for the 76ers, the playoff race and East rivals

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PHILADELPHIA — When Joel Embiid barreled down the court inside the final 30 seconds of Tuesday night’s game against the Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder, the sellout crowd inside Wells Fargo Center rose to its feet.

Meanwhile, 76ers coach Nick Nurse held his breath.

“Go faster?” Nurse said postgame, when asked what was going through his mind when he saw Embiid driving the paint in the closing moments of a one-point game after swiping the ball from Thunder guard Josh Giddey.

Seconds later, Embiid, in his first action in eight weeks after undergoing a procedure on the lateral meniscus in his left knee, jumped into Thunder center Chet Holmgren at the rim, sending the rookie into the photographers area behind the basket and Embiid to the free throw line. “Man, I was trying to get the and-one,” Embiid said postgame.

Embiid knocked down a pair of free throws, and after a final sequence that saw Oklahoma City miss three potential game-tying 3-pointers inside the final 13 seconds of the game, Embiid and the 76ers were able to celebrate a 109-105 victory over the Thunder. Philly’s MVP big man was officially back.

Overall, it was an uneven performance for Embiid: 24 points on 6-for-14 shooting but 12-for-12 from the foul line, to go along with six rebounds, seven assists, three steals and six turnovers in nearly 30 minutes on the court. Most importantly, Embiid appeared to emerge unscathed from a health perspective, just as he did from Saturday’s lengthy 5-on-5 practice, his first full session with his teammates since Golden State Warriors forward Jonathan Kuminga inadvertently fell on his leg during a game on Jan. 30.

Now, the 76ers shift to Miami for one of the biggest remaining games in the regular season Thursday night. Embiid, who was visibly exhausted at times during Tuesday’s win, said the goal is to play in that game, too.

“We just gotta take it day by day, see how the knee responds tomorrow,” Embiid said. “We got a big one in Miami. If I’m good to go, obviously go.”

Tuesday’s game, even as fellow All-Star Tyrese Maxey and the team’s other starting guard, De’Anthony Melton, watched in street clothes, was a sign that this contender, with less than two weeks to go in the regular season, is close to becoming whole.

“I want us to go on a run to finish the season,” Embiid said. “So, we got to take [the wins], and keep competing.”

As the rest of the Eastern Conference’s contenders watch Embiid and the Sixers over their final six games of the regular season, here’s how the reigning MVP’s return could shake up the playoff race.

What Embiid means for Philadelphia on the court

For Philadelphia, the next two weeks are about two things: getting Embiid up-to-speed and doing everything possible to avoid the play-in tournament. While Embiid’s return was an obvious boost, it showed how much his team has changed since he went out in late January. Before Tuesday’s game, Embiid had never played a single second with starting guards Kyle Lowry and Cameron Payne and sixth man Buddy Hield — all three arrived at or near the Feb. 8 trade deadline. Embiid’s victorious comeback also came with fellow All-Star Tyrese Maxey sitting out for a second consecutive game with a hip injury.

When Embiid is on the court this season, Philadelphia is scoring 120.6 points per 100 possessions and allowing 110.5. Those would rank as the second-best offense and third-best defense in the NBA over a full season. But during Embiid’s injury, Philadelphia was outscored by 4.9 points per 100 possessions, the ninth-worst mark in the league in that span.

Now, there are reasons for optimism that the team assembled around the reigning MVP is better than the roster when Embiid went down. Lowry, the North Philadelphia native, has hit 39% of his 3-pointers as a Sixer, provides solid two-way play and has a valuable connection with 76ers coach Nick Nurse from their shared time together with the Toronto Raptors.

Hield, meanwhile, is the latest in a line of sharpshooting guards that move well off the ball who should slip right into some excellent two-man game actions with Embiid, just as J.J. Redick and Seth Curry have with him in the past. And Nicolas Batum, after missing multiple chunks of time due to injury earlier in the year, has become a staple in Philadelphia’s lineup who could excel alongside Embiid and Harris in the 76ers’ frontcourt. One unknown is the status of guard De’Anthony Melton, a key two-way player for Philadelphia and, if healthy, Maxey’s partner in the team’s starting backcourt. Melton has played in just five of the 76ers’ last 44 games because of ongoing back issues, and his return timetable remains unclear.

Embiid’s impact on the East playoff picture

Thursday’s matchup in Miami with the Heat looms as a virtual must-win for the 76ers to climb higher than eighth entering the East the play-in tournament. Miami also won Tuesday, beating the New York Knicks, and will enter Thursday 1.5 games up in the standings with a 2-1 lead in the season series.

A Heat win Thursday would mean they have to go just 3-3 down the stretch to assure finishing ahead of Philadelphia by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker. (The Sixers, who lost the season series 2-1 to the Indiana Pacers, fare no better in a potential three-team tie.) Miami finishes with back-to-back home games against the lottery-bound Toronto Raptors and is likely to at least split its final six games.

If Philly wins to tie the season series 2-2, that would push the tiebreaker to conference record. At 29-18, the Heat are currently ahead of the 76ers (27-21), but that’s not settled yet. Perhaps more importantly, a win Thursday would give Philadelphia a realistic path to simply finish ahead of Miami in the standings.

After Miami, the 76ers finish the season with four of their final five games against teams with bottom-eight records. Although the Orlando Magic have a better record, Philadelphia would likely be favored in the remaining game by virtue of playing at home with a healthy Embiid.

If the Sixers win out, it’s plausible they could pass both the Heat and Pacers and avoid the play-in altogether. Projections based on ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) showed Philly claiming a top-six seed in 6% of simulations before Tuesday’s win.

Where the 76ers finish has important implications for the top half of the East standings as well. None of the conference’s top teams want to face the reigning MVP in the first round as a reward for earning a top-three seed.

If Philadelphia wins the second play-in game and claims the eighth seed it would mean a matchup against the top-seeded Boston Celtics for the second straight year after the teams met in the 2023 conference semifinals — expect renewed attention on the possibility of top seeds getting a chance to pick their opponents in the future.

While the Sixers would be an atypically challenging No. 8 seed, Boston would surely be favored in a first-round series. So too would the No. 2 seed Milwaukee Bucks, albeit by a narrower margin. But whichever team finishes third out of the Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks and Orlando Magic could find themselves a first-round underdog against Philadelphia with Embiid.

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