A day after winning the 2022-2023 Kia NBA Most Valuable Player Award, Joel Embiid returned to a Philadelphia 76ers team who had already stolen Game 1 in his absence. The seven-footer’s presence was certainly felt with eight trips to the free throw line and five blocked shots in Game 2, but his team was blown out in a 121-87 loss on Wednesday night.
Despite what has been reported as worse than a Grade 1 LCL knee sprain, Embiid looked hobbled, but was active on both ends of the floor. He spun in both directions posting up on the block, was sure-footed in pick-and-pops, and was reactive as a rim protector on defense.
“He’s the MVP, man. He’s a phenomenal player. Tonight was just his first game back. I expect him to be even better the next game,” Grant Williams said after splitting defensive duties with Al Horford on Embiid.
“For me, it’s just a matter of trying to make him work. That’s basically what I said to him. ‘I’m here to make you frustrated and to make this hard for you every single night.’ That’s my role and that’s how I play. Most of my career, I pride myself on guarding the best players. He’s one of those. I have tremendous respect for him, but at the same time, I’m an ultimate competitor, so I’m trying to make every single thing hard, including walking up the floor.“
“You have to give him different looks. You have to be physical. You have to defend without fouling. You have to defend him as a team and I thought our guys did,” head coach Joe Mazzulla reiterated after largely holding Williams out of the rotation in the first round against the Atlanta Hawks and playing him 29 minutes in a pivotal home game before heading to Philadelphia for the next two.
After being listed as doubtful heading into both Game 1 and Game 2, Embiid played nearly 27 minutes after being away from intense pace of playoff basketball for thirteen days. He’ll now join a series that hits breakneck speed with a game every other day until a potential Game 6 next Thursday.
Embiid finished the game a -23 in his return after the Celtics made it a priority to test the Sixers big man’s health.
“He’s their focal point. We know that,” Malcolm Brogdon said after Boston outscored Philadelphia in second chance and fast break points. “We didn’t know if he’d be full speed or in shape because he took so many days off, so we wanted to run him and see where he’d be at.”
Malcolm Brogdon and Jaylen Brown on Joel Embiid's return pic.twitter.com/Htp3ZTZdKY— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) May 4, 2023
After the game, James Harden repeated that the spacing was off all night in Embiid’s return. After scoring 45 points on Monday night and contributing 17 points and 11 assists in the series clincher against the Brooklyn Nets, the former MVP hit just 2-of-14 shots against a focused Celtics defense with Jaylen Brown as his primary defender.
“I think they were themselves. I think they came out, gave us a good punch in the first and second quarter,” Brown said. “Embiid, despite him having some knee issues, I still had four or five blocked shots. He looked good to me. We’ll see about the next game.”
Game 3 tips off at Wells Fargo Center on Friday night at 7:30 pm EST.