The masked return of Joel Embiid about simply being there for the Sixers

The most important part of Joel Embiid’s Friday night is that he stepped onto the floor of the Wells Fargo Center.

After he did, it overturned a series that was all about his absence. Sixers head coach Doc Rivers used the word “presence” six times in his availability to the media after the game.

Any tendency to romanticize Embiid’s return for the Sixers ’win in Game 3 over the Heat is fair enough. The list of injuries jumps off the page – a concussion and a fracture of the right orbit eight days ago, plus a torn ligament in his right thumb. Even if he wasn’t 7 feet tall and MVP finalist for the second season in a row, all eyes would be on the player taking warm-up jumpers with a black protective mask attached to his face.

Embiid stopped his pre-match routine on the foul line, took off his mask and asked for a towel to wipe his face. Sixers staff made sure he always had a towel nearby in case of any interruption in the game; people with the ball placed along the baseline who usually focus on dealing with wet spots on the field had a new duty.

When he’s healthy and in full swing, the NBA archery champion flirts with a sense of invincibility. Sometimes he was truly bigger and better than everyone else. He can do more than just a little.

Even with awkward accessories and minimal time on the field over the past week, Embiid has not projected a vulnerability in a performance of 18 points and 11 rebounds. The bottom line is that he was there. And his teammates were thrilled about it.

“I was so happy to see‘ 21 ’hanging in the locker room with his mask on,” Tyrese Maxey said after exploding in the second half with a whopping 21 points. “He’s a soldier, man. He is a soldier. Thumb, mask, concussion, broken face – now it looks even uglier. But no, he’s resilient, man. He is the MVP for a reason. Only the attention he seeks is great for us. It is only a testimony to his will and his desire to win. “

Embiid played most of the first quarter and came out with the Sixers by eight points. Rivers ’emphasis on his presence was not excessive. The crux of Miami’s defensive game plan in the opening minutes seemed to be to limit Embiid’s catches and provide assistance to defenders ready to attack at any time and from all locations. Early attacks were a solid counter – sealed colored defenders; flashing a distinctly superior agility to Dewayne Dedmon in a few quick pauses; initiating an offense from the top of the key.

And finally, it was important that DeAndre Jordan spent the evening on the bench. Rivers has hired Paul Reed as Embiid’s backup, and the Sixers ’defensive capabilities have expanded into another space with 48 minutes of centers not playing a rigged carnival game if asked to do anything but deep pick-and-cover. rolls.

Embiid said he was dealing with a “bunch of symptoms” from the concussion, but followed up as the Sixers lost the first two games of the series in Miami.

“It was very embarrassing,” he said. “Obviously we didn’t shoot, but we also made a lot of mistakes … there were offensive jumps, lost balls. Their big guy, Bam (Adebayo), dominated, and I was really angry watching the other big man play well against my team. That’s unfortunate. We can’t bring it back, so we have to focus on the next game. “

Although Embiid was technically listed as a suspect until about 40 minutes before the tip-off, it always seemed likely that he would play after clearing the NBA’s concussion protocol.

He is called the “BS” load manager and has often expressed frustration with the Sixers’ caution earlier in his career. When the team lost Game 2 of their first round against Miami four years ago, Embiid was eagerly awaiting his return, wanting to put on a mask and get dressed a few weeks after suffering a left orbit fracture and concussion. He posted on Instagram that he was “sick and tired of the baby” and then got the green light for the rest of that postseason.

Embiid was proud to have played a record 68 career games this season, including 59 of 63 after being off the field in November due to a serious COVID-19 case.

Maxey appreciated Embiid’s availability on Friday, but was also concerned about him as a person.

I only asked him a few times, ‘Are you okay?’ Do you promise to be good? ‘ After all, basketball is extremely important to all of us, ”said Maxey. “It’s our job. But you want someone to be the best they can ever feel in life.

“I didn’t want him to hurt or anything, so I just checked him to see if he was okay. But like I said, he’s a soldier. How many minutes did he play? Thirty-six minutes. I thought it was great for us. “

Again, it would be appropriate to talk about Embiid’s toughness and point out the last three games as convincing proof of his value as an MVP caliber – no statistics needed. In terms of value, the on / off split of the Sixers’ net rating with Embiid this year was a plus of -11.3, according to Cleaning the Glass. This is actually the second lowest grade in his career.

But with a white ribbon around his index finger and middle finger on his left hand on the press podium after the game, Embiid was reluctant to think so.

“When I deal with this kind of thing, I just understand it as it is,” he said. “It’s happening. You just have to move on. It’s unfortunate. I’ve been doing a lot of things, but my mind is always focused on staying positive and coming back from everything that’s going on and doing everything possible.” It’s more of a motivation to try to win – to try to win the whole thing. That’s what motivates me. “

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