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NBA roundtable: Breaking down Joel Embiid’s return, and whether the Sixers can make a playoff run

SportsNBA roundtable: Breaking down Joel Embiid's return, and whether the Sixers can make a playoff run


In the fourth quarter of the Philadelphia 76ers‘ loss to the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 30, Joel Embiid tore his meniscus in his left knee when Jonathan Kuminga landed atop it during a chase for a loose ball. The team eventually determined that he needed surgery to repair the issue, and initially, it was unclear when or if he would return this season. 

That question was answered last Tuesday when Embiid returned to the court for the Sixers’ matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder. In the end, he missed just over two months, during which time the Sixers went 11-18 and fell from fifth place in the Eastern Conference to eighth. 

Embiid put up 24 points, six rebounds and seven assists in 30 minutes in his first game back to help the Sixers take down the Thunder. He then followed it up with 29 points, four rebounds and three assists in 32 minutes in the Sixers’ crucial win over the Heat. All of a sudden, the city of Philadelphia suddenly has hope again. 

With Embiid back in action and the postseason fast approaching, CBS Sports’ experts got together to discuss the reigning MVP’s return and what that means for the Sixers’ playoff hopes. 

What are your initial thoughts on how Embiid has looked in these first two outings? 

Brad Botkin: I’m not sure how much more the Sixers could’ve expected from Embiid after two months off. He got to the free-throw line 12 times in his first game back, picking up right where he left off, then he had 29 points in 29 minutes as Philly scored a massive win over the Heat on Thursday to move within one game of a top-six seed. He has looked winded, naturally, but he’s not far away. The 3s fell on Thursday. The face-up jumper is clean. He’s hitting foul-line runners for crying out loud. Again, I’m not sure the Sixers could’ve hoped for anything more than this. 

Jack Maloney: I would agree with Brad that Embiid looks about as good as he and the Sixers could have hoped, considering the circumstances. This is certainly not the same world-destroying player we saw early in the season, but his presence alone causes problems for opponents and lifts his teammates. The fact that the Sixers immediately beat the Thunder and the Heat with him on the floor after going 11-18 while he was out really saying all you need to know. 

James Herbert: Tuesday’s game was fairly encouraging, even with the very visible rust. In Thursday’s game, he wildly exceeded my expectations. About two minutes in, the Heat called timeout down 10-0, and even though Embiid had yet to score, his fingerprints were everywhere: screening for Tyrese Maxey, backscreening Kelly Oubre open for an alley-oop, swiping down at a Terry Rozier shot and blocking it out of bounds off Rozier. Embiid wasn’t perfect — there were a couple of blowbys, a few defensive rebounds that he didn’t pursue and some, uh, lapses in transition defense — but, by and large he looked like himself. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Embiid shot the ball much better in the first half than the second, but I don’t think that’s damning or anything, either. The dude managed to play 33 minutes in his second game back from knee surgery.

Sam Quinn: He’s closer to full strength than we reasonably could have expected. It’s not just the strong statistical performances, but the workload that has come with them. He’s hovered around 30 minutes in his first two games back, suggesting that his conditioning is far better than it should be after missing two months. He’s moving well. He took over the end of the Thunder game completely even when he was visibly exhausted, and perhaps most importantly, he attempted 12 free throws in that game. If Embiid is reasonably healthy and drawing fouls at a point in which few East teams are healthy and drawing fouls, the 76ers are going to have a pronounced advantage over most of their competition.

The Sixers only have five more games in the regular season. Do you think that’s enough time for him to regain his rhythm before the postseason begins? 

Botkin: Considering the rhythm Embiid and the Sixers established before he went down, I do think he can get a good amount of his rhythm back. All of it? I’m not sure. But it feels like he will be able to get enough of it back, and then hopefully, he’ll get better as Philly’s first-round series progresses, assuming they get out of the Play-in. What needs to be considered is the increased pace with which Philly is operating this season in the half court. Embiid is the hub of Nick Nurse’s offense, which is largely predicated on flowing two-man actions as Embiid controls traffic. That’s a lot of timing and anticipation, and that requires reps. That’s the part that feels a bit squeezed. 

Maloney: I thought this comment after the win over the Thunder was notable: “It’s going to take me a while to get back to myself and really trust myself,” Embiid said. The fact that he was able to return for any regular season action at all is huge, but five-to-seven games – depending on how many he plays – on a minutes restriction is not enough to fully prepare yourself for playoff basketball. But, again, a somewhat clunky Embiid is far better than no Embiid. 

Herbert: His pre-injury rhythm? I mean, he was scoring 40 points just about every other game, and when he dropped 70, it wasn’t that shocking. Since the bar is so high, the answer is technically “no,” but Embiid shouldn’t be judged against what he was doing in December and January. I already like the way he and Kyle Lowry are working together — in the third quarter against Miami, Lowry screened him open for a jumper, he got Lowry an open 3 off a dribble-handoff and the two of them set double screens for Maxey — and he and Maxey have picked up where they left off, but I’d like to see more of the Hield-Embiid two-man game that I’ve been imagining since the trade deadline. I do think that there’s enough time for him to build some rhythm with his teammates and get all of them used to playing with him again, and, ideally, Philadelphia will get more cohesive as the postseason goes on.

Quinn: Well, four of the five remaining games on Philadelphia’s schedule are against bottom-dwellers. That will help, and as long as Philadelphia can avoid the No. 8 seed, they have no reason to fear any Eastern Conference opponent they’d see in the first two rounds. He doesn’t need to be 100% in the next week or two. If he can slowly gain steam over the course of the next month, Philadelphia instantly becomes Boston’s biggest threat in the Eastern Conference.

When Embiid plays this season, the Sixers are 28-8 and have a plus-8.9 net rating with him on the court. Can they make a run in the playoffs now that he’s back? 

Botkin: I went on CBS Sports HQ on Thursday morning and said I didn’t think it was realistic for Embiid to get back to pre-injury levels in enough time for the Sixers to make any real postseason noise. Now I’m not so sure. Again, Embiid has looked pretty damn good in his first two games back, and you have to wonder if his injury was possibly a blessing in disguise in that he’s going to go into the playoffs as rested as he ever has. Not only that, but Maxey, who went for 37, 11 and 9 on Thursday, has now gotten all these reps as the main defensive focus. Now with Embiid back, Maxey could be ready to play like the All-NBA guard he was tracking to be for much of the season. If Philly can get up to the No. 6 seed, look out. That would give them the Cavs or Knicks in the first round. Even at No. 7, I would give them a puncher’s chance against Milwaukee. If they slip to No. 8, forget about it. They’re not beating Boston. 

Maloney: Going to co-sign Brad again here. If they can somehow get up to the No. 6 seed and avoid the Play-In Tournament, that gives them a far better chance. Not only would they avoid the Celtics or Bucks in the first round, but Embiid would get a full week off to rest his knee, rather than having to play at least one extra high-intensity game. But can they do so? They are only one game behind the sixth-place Pacers in the standings, but it’s essentially a two-game gap due to the tiebreaker. Given the teams’ respective schedules, it’s not impossible for the Sixers to make up that ground, but they would also have to jump the seventh-place Heat, which is a complicating factor. 

Herbert: I don’t know if they will, but of course they can. The Sixers were profiled as contenders before Embiid’s injury, and they’ve made some smart moves since then. At full strength, I think they’re a better, more balanced team than they were last season, even though they have less firepower with James Harden out of the picture. Nicolas Batum is a perfect fit in Nurse’s offense, Kyle Lowry is still doing a million helpful little things and Oubre was last summer’s best budget signing. The upside here is obvious, but Embiid needs to hold up, Melton needs to heal up and Philadelphia probably needs to jump up to the seventh or, ideally, sixth seed. I feel pretty good about this team, but I’d feel better if I knew for sure that it wouldn’t see the Celtics before the conference finals.

Quinn: Who, besides Boston, should even be favored over Philadelphia in an Eastern Conference series if Embiid is at even 80%? Milwaukee is now 15-16 under Doc Rivers. The Knicks don’t have Julius Randle. Donovan Mitchell has been in and out of the lineup for Cleveland. Orlando has virtually no playoff experience. The reality of the Eastern Conference right now is that any team can beat any opponent in any series that does not involve the Boston Celtics. If Philadelphia gets to No. 7, anything becomes possible.





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