Working toward second seed in East.
The 76ers went 6-3 with Joel Embiid sidelined by a torn ligament in his left ring finger, including wins over the Celtics and Thunder.
But not having Embiid, the Sixers’ All-Star center, affecting the game at both ends of the floor, coupled with the team’s difficult upcoming schedule, meant that success was unlikely to continue.
By returning to the lineup just three weeks and a day after suffering the injury against Oklahoma City — and only 2½ weeks following surgery — Embiid accomplished a number of things.
No. 1, he provided the Sixers with a tangible lift in downing the scuffling Warriors 115-104 on Tuesday night, contributing 24 points on 9-for-13 shooting, to go along with 10 rebounds in 26 minutes. He wore a splint to protect the finger as much as possible.
“Just his presence, his size, his ability to find ways to score (helped us),” said Sixers coach Brett Brown. “For his first game back, it was pretty impressive.”
No. 2, he honored idol Kobe Bryant by wearing No. 24, after Sixers Hall of Famer Bobby Jones allowed Embiid to wear Jones’ retired jersey in Philadelphia’s first game after Bryant and eight others died in a helicopter crash Sunday.
“Watching the (2010 NBA) Finals — Lakers vs. Celtics — that was the turning point of my life,” said Embiid, who is from Cameroon. “After watching, I just wanted to be like him. I just wanted to play basketball.”
No. 3 — and most important of all — Brown and the Sixers have 2½
months to move up in the Eastern Conference standings while learning how to best play together before they begin the NBA playoffs in mid-April.
“I want to go into the all-star break at another place other than No. 6,” said Embiid afterward. “That’s the reason why I played (this soon).”
Seven games stand between the Sixers and the all-star break. The real marquee matchup during that span is the Bucks, who are 22-2 at home (same as Philly), on Feb. 6.
The victory over Golden State pushed the 31-17 Sixers into fifth place heading into Wednesday’s games, with a challenging slate of games on deck. But they were only 2½ games behind the No. 2 Raptors in the bunched-up East.
After visiting the Hawks, who own the conference’s worst record at 12-36, Thursday night, the Sixers visit three of the top four teams — the Celtics (Saturday), Heat (Monday) and NBA-leading Bucks (next Thursday).
“We got a real tough stretch coming up,” Embiid said. “We got some big games.”
To increase their chances of a deep playoff run, the Sixers need to vault up to No. 2, which would result in home court advantage in the first two rounds. It won’t be easy, but Embiid’s availability clearly increases the chances.
Embiid was a full participant in Sixers practices Friday and Monday, then received medical clearance right before the Warriors game.
Embiid’s injury typically keeps players out between four and eight weeks, but he was determined to play.
“Obviously I came back earlier than I was supposed to, but I felt good,” Embiid said. “Everybody’s different. I healed up quick and I’m back for this long, hard stretch coming up.”
While Embiid’s conditioning isn’t where it needs to be, he has time to get there.
Embiid is by far the Sixers’ best player at dealing with 2018-19 league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of Milwaukee. As the primary defender, Embiid limited Antetokounmpo to 18 points on 8-for-27 shooting in the Sixers’ 121-109 Christmas Day win. And Embiid did it without fouling Antetokounmpo, who attempted just four free throws, which was 6.2 below his season average.
For the third year in a row, Embiid was voted a starter in the NBA All-Star Game Feb. 16 in Chicago. It’s a weekend he always looks forward to.
Following the break, only 27 games remain in the regular season. If everything goes well, Embiid could be healthy heading into the postseason for the first time in his career. He’s going to have to be if the Sixers plan to challenge for the conference championship, since Embiid and Ben Simmons will determine what happens more than anybody else.
“(Tuesday) I thought I was OK,” Embiid said. “I can do a much better job, but it was good to see. I’m going to get better.”
The Sixers are counting on it.
Tom Moore: email@example.com; @TomMoorePhilly