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Embiid's return puts everything back on table for Sixers

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When Joel Embiid hung 70 points on Victor Wembanyama and the Spurs in a late January win, it improved the Philadelphia 76ers to 29-13, a half-game behind the Bucks for second place in the East with a plus-8.4 net rating that cleared every team besides the Celtics. Embiid was an early MVP front-runner, pairing one of the great scoring seasons in league history with markedly improved playmaking chops.

Two nights later, he tweaked his knee in a loss to Indiana. He sat out the next two games, then played hobbled at Golden State and wound up tearing his meniscus. When he finally returned to action two months later, Philly was 40-35, 2.5 games out of a direct-entry playoff spot and on track to open the play-in round on the road.

He's been back for two games, both of which the Sixers have won - the first over an Oklahoma City team missing its two best players, the next over a mostly healthy Miami team that'd host Philly in the 7-8 play-in if the season ended today. Those wins pulled the Sixers to within a game of a top-six seed and brought their record to 28-8 with Embiid in the lineup.

They have five games left, four of which are against bottom-10 teams. They can plausibly win out, and they might have to in order to escape the play-in. Doing so would mean eluding the Celtics for two playoff rounds and likely avoiding the Bucks in Round 1.

Whether the Sixers can do that - and make any kind of run from the bottom half of the bracket - depends on how quickly Embiid can get back up to something approximating his pre-injury form. The early returns are encouraging. His first game back came with Tyrese Maxey in street clothes, and despite looking sluggish and winded for most of the night, Embiid managed to scratch out 24 points on 20 shooting possessions while making some huge defensive plays down the stretch. Maxey returned for Thursday's pivotal showdown in Miami, and he and Embiid (with help from Kelly Oubre) engineered a gritty win that shrunk the gap between the two teams to a half-game. (The Heat’s win on Friday pushed it back to a full game.)

Embiid's conditioning, burst, and rhythm still clearly have a ways to go, and he'll especially have to rediscover his confidence in his driving game. He turned the ball over left and right against the Thunder, and the Sixers had difficulty trying to get him established in the middle of Miami's swarming zone in the second half. But going up against that Heat defense felt like something of a trial by fire, and he emerged only mildly singed. He still put up 29 points in 32 minutes while shooting 3-of-6 from deep. Though he'll eventually need to rely on it less, his jumper looks to be in solid form considering how long he was on the shelf.

David Dow / NBA / Getty Images

Apart from that, just having Embiid back on the court creates a massive gravitational force that changes everything. It peels attention away from Maxey, who used the increased freedom of movement to pop off for 37 and 11 on Thursday. Everyone else has bigger gaps to slice into, with Oubre in particular taking advantage. Pick-and-pops are back on the menu. Paul Reed gets to shine as a backup. Opponents are deterred from attacking the rim. You're quickly reminded why a team that was 14-27 without Embiid was one of the best teams in basketball when he was healthy.

You could argue the full-strength version of the supporting cast is stronger than it was early in the season, too (though Tobias Harris' falloff might mitigate the deadline additions). At some point, Buddy Hield will develop some dribble-handoff synergy with Embiid and bend defenses out of shape with his shooting gravity. It'd be huge if De'Anthony Melton could make it back to round out the backcourt, but if he can't, Kyle Lowry is an acceptable substitute.

Embiid has already found a bit of synergy with Lowry, though the 38-year-old's reluctance to attack and eagerness to get off the ball could hinder a viable two-man game. (In pick-and-roll, screen defenders give perfunctory stunts toward Lowry before immediately retreating to Embiid, and in many cases, Lowry looks to make the pocket pass anyway rather than attacking the vacated lane.) But that was much more of an issue in the OKC game than it was against Miami with Maxey back. Lowry can spot up and shake on the weak side around the two of them while serving as connective playmaking tissue and bringing his still-rugged defense at the other end.

None of that will likely amount to much if Embiid can't recapture his early-season agility or lift. Ten days isn't a ton of time for him to get ramped up before the intensity of these games rises exponentially. But this flicker of hope is all that matters for a Sixers season that was otherwise down to its dying embers. Honestly, calling it a flicker might be underselling things. Again, this team is 28-8 with Embiid in the lineup, and it's outscored opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions when he and Maxey share the court. The erstwhile starting lineup of Maxey, Melton, Harris, Nic Batum, and Embiid was the best five-man unit in the league, producing a plus-34 net rating across 219 minutes.

Nab that No. 6 seed and, provided Milwaukee stays at No. 2, Philly will get a beatable first-round opponent. Even with a potential matchup against the inscrutable Bucks looming after that, a road to the conference finals - which this franchise hasn't reached since 2001 - would suddenly look attainable. Of course, the Embiid-era Sixers have had relatively clear paths to the East finals before, only to trip over their own feet. But in almost all of those instances, Embiid was dealing with a significant ailment or three.

This looked for two months like yet another Sixers season that'd be derailed by Embiid's inability to stay healthy. But now, he and the team have a chance to rewrite the script. He's spent years grinding through the regular season only to pick up an ill-timed postseason injury. Maybe this is the year, after having a historic regular season curtailed by circumstance, that Embiid actually manages to get healthy at the right time and put together a playoff run befitting his stature as an all-time great.

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