PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid won’t say he had Sunday’s game against the Indiana Pacers circled on his calendar as his return date from a knee injury that’s kept him out since the All-Star Game, but he knew just how important it was for the 76ers to defeat the Pacers at home on Sunday. Everyone did.
“We’re fighting for the third seed over here. We’re fighting for home court advantage. I just felt like this game was really important,” he said. “If it was for just for me to come back, play this game, then miss a couple more games, I would have been fine with that that. But I just felt like I had to play this game just to make sure we were in good position.”
Embiid didn’t just play on Sunday. He dominated.
Philly’s all-star big man finished with 33 points, 12 rebounds, and two steals in Philly’s 106-89 win. He got Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, Kyle O’Quinn, and any other nearby Pacer into foul trouble. He didn’t record a block, but his presence put a lid on the rim. After missing the eight games that followed the NBA All-Star break, Embiid’s return showed why the Sixers are a threat for a deep playoff run.
Embiid returned on Sunday for a reason
76ers coach Brett Brown said he looks at the standings more than he lets on. Embiid said the game was really important. Tobias Harris flat-out called the game a must-win.
Never mind that the Sixers had lost three of their last four games leading into Sunday’s matchup against the Pacers and were coming off of a disappointing 16-point loss in Houston. What’s more important is that seeds Nos. 3, 4, and 5 are separated by only one game.
The 76ers secured a 3-1 series lead over the Pacers by winning on Sunday. That means that in the event the two teams finish with identical records at the end of the season, Philadelphia will finish with the higher seed.
Why is that important?
The Celtics have underperformed during the regular season, but it’s generally accepted that they will hit a second gear when the playoffs come around. This is a team that made it to the Eastern Conference Finals without both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward last season. Both of those guys are back now, and Boston is overdue for some Grade A basketball this season.
The Celtics, though, might very well finish this season as the No. 5 seed in the East. That means whichever team finishes fourth has a dance with the team that entered the season as favorites to win the entire conference.
Right now, the Sixers and Pacers have the same record. But because Philadelphia won on Sunday and holds the tiebreaker, they are the No. 3 seed and would match up against the Detroit Pistons if the season ended today.
The icing on the cake for Philadelphia is they have the fifth-weakest schedule of all NBA teams to close the season. Only five of their remaining 15 games are against teams with playoff aspirations. The rest should be easy pickings for a team with four All-Star caliber players on tap.
That’s why having Embiid back matters so much
Embiid admitted he’ll probably miss a few more games before the playoffs come around. He called it “load management,” a term that’s become popular this season as players across the league have sat out amid nagging injuries.
But the Sixers aren’t the same team without their all-star on the floor. They’re 5-7 in games Embiid missed this season and 37-17 when he plays.
“He is a difference maker in all ways, shapes and forms,” Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown said. “The first thing you talk about is stuff at the rim, that’s what I felt the most pain when we didn’t have him, was just the rim protection.”
“His presence on the floor is unmatched,” Harris said. “It’s great to have him back.”
Now, the Sixers appear fully healthy, so long as Embiid holds up the rest of the season. Philadelphia made two midseason trades for potential max-contract players in Jimmy Butler and Harris, both free agents after the season. Ben Simmons is finding his way amid a breakout year.
But Embiid is the captain of this ship, the dominant force the bends defenses to his will. His return was right on time, securing a victory against a tough Indiana Pacers opponent.
Embiid is back, and if it’s for good, the Sixers will be scary in the playoffs.