The noise in the Wells Fargo Center enveloped Joel Embiid, his arms curled in a semicircle above his head, his hands first pointing to himself then waving to coax the sellout crowd of 20,636 to grow louder and ABC’s cameras to zoom in on him, his mouth gaping and his voice screaming, “I’M BACK!”
In that moment, in the signature sequence from Embiid’s masterful return to the 76ers’ lineup – 33 points and 12 rebounds in a 106-89 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Sunday, 28 minutes of dominance before a national-TV audience after eight games of absence – it was easy to miss or forget the cause of the commotion. Embiid caught the ball at the top of the key, pump-faked Domantas Sabonis, glided past him, absorbed a body blow from Thaddeus Young, then lofted the ball casually, like he was flipping a quarter to a kid, high off the backboard. The shot passed through the hoop on a descent so soft and straight that it seemed God had dropped the ball from the sky.
Imagine the combination of strength and skill required to pull off such a play, especially for an athlete on a tender left knee and admittedly not in peak physical shape. Imagine the point that Embiid already has reached in his still-brief basketball career – that everyone has come to expect such moments from him, if not take them for granted. He turns 25 this Saturday. Mercy.
“I asked him, ‘How did it feel out there?’” forward Mike Scott said. “He said, ‘A little rusty.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll take that rust.’ He’s the best big man in the league. He says he’s rusty? I want to see him at 112 percent.”
Scott does, and the rest of his and Embiid’s Sixers teammates do, but understand: No one else in the Eastern Conference shares their desire. Sunday’s win was more than an important boost for the Sixers in the standings, a jump to third place in the conference, a tiebreaker edge over the Pacers. It was a reminder to the East’s contenders, and maybe to the Sixers themselves, that the team they have been without Embiid isn’t necessarily the team they’ll be once the playoffs begin.
No, Embiid’s presence doesn’t guarantee the Sixers anything against the Bucks, the Raptors, and especially the Celtics. But it gives them an opportunity, maybe even an edge, that they wouldn’t have without him. “He is a difference-maker in all ways, shapes, and forms,” coach Brett Brown said. That’s why it was reckless for him to hurl himself into the Madison Square Garden stands against the hapless Knicks, and that’s why what he acknowledged Sunday was so vital: The Sixers have 15 games left, and he will miss a game or two because he has to, because they need him at his best and healthiest for the postseason, that some games matter more than others.
“We’re fighting for the third seed,” Embiid said. “We’re fighting for home-court advantage. I also felt like this game was really important. If it was just for me to come back for this game and miss a couple, I would have been fine with it. I felt like I had to play this game just to make sure we were in good position.”
As of late Saturday afternoon, his suiting up Sunday seemed an impossibility. Embiid had spent that Sixers’ off-day at the team’s complex in Camden, playing a succession of five-on-five pickup games for 75 minutes, and more than once, the workouts pushed him to the point that he could no longer stand on his own two feet, that he believed he wouldn’t be ready for the Pacers. “After every game, I was on the floor, crying for my life,” he said.
Brown entered Sunday with a plan to play Embiid for the first four minutes of each quarter. But for all the concerns about Embiid’s potential sluggishness and fatigue, a different reality materialized, and like everyone else, Brown could see it: The more time Embiid spent on the floor, the better he got. As it turned out, he played between 6½-7½ minutes, roughly, in every quarter, and after Brown reinserted him with 5 minutes, 6 seconds left in regulation and the Sixers up 12 points, Embiid appeared bent on single-handedly crushing the Pacers’ spirits.
He tipped in a Tobias Harris miss, and on the ensuing possession, he ripped the ball from center Myles Turner’s hands. Out of a timeout, he took a pass from Harris, dribbled past Turner along the left baseline, and dunked. He made three free throws, then drove from the left again for a layup, then swished a feathery fadeaway over Turner before Brown pulled him from the game with 1:47 to go. Over 3:19, he was responsible for nine points, one steal, and three indignities at Turner’s expense.
It was a sight to see, and it was a signal that he was only too happy to send. In an orange sweatshirt and gray sweatpants, Joel Embiid fiddled with his phone as he quietly walked out of the Wells Fargo Center on Sunday night. The time for so much noise, for such celebration of himself and the places he can take this team, had passed, but it will come again. Joel Embiid is back. For the Sixers’ sake, it has to.