At 6:19 p.m. on Friday, Joel Embiid walked out of the Philadelphia 76ers’ locker room and on to the Wells Fargo Center floor, his status for the night’s game against the Miami Heat still in question, at least publicly. For the next 14 minutes, Embiid shot jumpers, post-ups and free throws, a routine workout that nonetheless proved that he was ready to return. Shortly afterward, the 76ers announced he would be in the starting lineup.
Embiid had missed the first two games of the 76ers-Heat Eastern Conference semifinals series after sustaining a concussion and orbital bone fracture late in Philadelphia’s Game 6 first round series-clinching victory over the Toronto Raptors.
Still, Embiid wasn’t about to sit out again. And on Friday, he helped the 76ers get back in the series, defeating the Heat, 99-79, as Embiid scored 18 points and grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds in 36 minutes and 20 seconds. Game 4 is Sunday night in Philadelphia
Embiid accomplished all of that despite having to wear a mask to protect the broken bone near his eye. He has also been playing with a torn ligament in his right thumb that is likely to require surgery once the season ends.
“He’s a soldier, man,” 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey said. “He’s a soldier. Thumb, mask, concussion, broken face. (The mask) makes him look even uglier now. Nah, he’s resilient, man. He’s the MVP for a reason. Just the attention that he demands is great for us. It’s just a testimony to his will and to his wanting to win.”
Embiid is no stranger to the face mask. He had to wear one during the 2018 postseason after sustaining an orbital fracture late in that regular season when he collided with teammate Markelle Fultz. Back then, Embiid sat out 22 days before returning to the court. But this time, only eight days elapsed from when he sustained the injury on April 28 to his return on Friday.
Embiid didn’t travel to Miami for the first two games. And the 76ers didn’t clear Embiid to practice until Thursday as he dealt with the concussion.
“I’m OK,” Embiid said after Friday’s game. “I feel pretty good. It was a struggle really because of the concussion and dealing with a bunch of symptoms. But I’m glad they went away and I’m glad that I’m back.”
Embiid got off to a strong start offensively, scoring 7 points in the first quarter on 2 of 4 field goals and 3 of 4 free throws. But during the next three quarters, he became less of a focal point in the offense, although his presence on the floor helped the 76ers have more open shots as the Heat had to account for where Embiid was on the floor.
The 76ers made 48.5% of their 3-pointers (16 of 33), led by forward Danny Green’s 7 of 9 and Maxey’s 5 of 6. Green and Maxey each had a team-high 21 points, with all of Maxey’s points coming in the second half.
Embiid was even more effective with his rebounding and defense. He helped hold Heat All-Star center Bam Adebayo to 9 points on 2 of 9 shooting. Adebayo had scored 24 and 23 points, respectively, in the first two games with Embiid out of the lineup and DeAndre Jordan starting at center for the 76ers. Jordan didn’t play on Friday night.
“You could see (Embiid’s) timing was off a little bit, but his presence defensively (was important on Friday),” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “I don’t think he gets enough credit how good of a defensive player he is and how much he helps us. I thought tonight it was a lot of that.”
Said Embiid: “It was very annoying just watching (the first two games). Obviously we didn’t make shots, but we also made a lot of mistakes whether it was offensive rebounding or turnovers. The big fella, Bam (Adebayo), was dominating, I was really pissed off watching that other big man go play well against my team.”
On Friday, Embiid wasn’t as dominant as he was in the regular season when he led the NBA in scoring (30.6 points per game), added 11.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game and became one of three finalists for the league’s Most Valuable Player award. That is understandable as Embiid is dealing with multiple injuries, is wearing the mask and and had more than a week off.
Embiid knows he won’t be 100% healthy for the remainder of the season, no matter how far the 76ers advance. Still, he’s eager for Sunday’s Game 4 and the rest of the playoffs.
“I really want to win,” Embiid said. “I feel that we have a big chance to win it all. Obviously we’ve got to stay healthy and we’ve all got to play well at the same time. We’ve all got to be damn near perfect. To me, that’s what I signed up for. Whatever is going to take me to win, that’s what I’m going to do.”