“I’m back,” Sixers All-Star Joel Embiid declared before the Wells Fargo Center crowd, and none too soon. His presence on the court was certainly required; the red, white, and blue played uninspiring .500 ball in the eight matches he was sidelined due to a sore left knee, their middling slate underscoring his importance to the cause. For all their supposed talent, their system revolves around him, and precisely because he’s their biggest weapon in their aim to claim favorable playoff seeding. And, true enough, he promptly dropped an imposing 33 and 12 yesterday against the Pacers, the very opponents hitherto ahead of them in conference standings.
Indeed, the Sixers needed the win, and they needed Embiid to secure it. The score may have looked lopsided at the final buzzer, but it was actually close until midway through the fourth quarter. And, needless to say, he proved to be the catalyst that enabled them to pull away, with the beyond-capacity 20,636-strong crowd rocking and appreciating his efforts. “He’s a difference maker in all ways, shapes, and forms,” head coach Brett Brown enthused, and with reason. “I can feel that there’s an excitement having Joel back.”
Significantly, there is cause to contend that Embiid isn’t all the way back. Because of his size and constitution, he has invariably been subject to in-game fatigue. And it was understandably more apparent yesterday; his rhythm was off at the start, and he had to be subbed out after just four minutes and change of play. His second stint was then marred by a succession of whistles; he was called for three fouls in a span of three minutes and 15 seconds, causing him to miss a large chunk of the first half. He was on the court in the clutch, though, and the Sixers not coincidentally found their inside-out sets working as a result.
Moving forward, the Sixers are expected to monitor Embiid’s exposure in order to preserve him for the set-tos that truly matter. After all, they’re not just out to crowd the Bucks and Raptors at the top of the East in the final fourth of the regular season. More importantly, they’re keen on booking a Finals seat, and they know he will have to be at his best in order for them to meet their objective. How they end the season will then determine what they do with starters and would-be free agents Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler. He’s their most crucial constant; everything else is a matter of fit.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.