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Joel Embiid returns, says injury ‘took a toll mentally’

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PHILADELPHIA — Returning to the court eight weeks to the day after undergoing a procedure on the lateral meniscus in his left knee, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid admitted that the mental recovery process from this injury was as difficult as any he’s gone through across his NBA career.

“Usually, when I have injuries, I just tell myself, move on to the next one, get better, and then fix it,” Embiid, who finished with 24 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals and 6 turnovers in a 109-105 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder here at Wells Fargo Center Tuesday night. “But this one took a toll mentally, being depressed … it was not a good one.

“So, still not where I’m supposed to be, especially mentally, but I just love to play and love basketball and I want to play and any chance that I can be out there, I’m going to take it.”

When Embiid was asked what, specifically, he meant by not being in the right place mentally, he admitted the injury left him feeling depressed.

“For some reason this injury was just … it was disappointing,” he said. “It was depressing. It took me a while to get over it, and I still haven’t gotten over it. So just gotta take it day by day, look at the positive.

“I’m back. So, hopefully every single day, try to get better and get back to myself.”

It will, understandably, take Embiid some time to get back to the place he was before he got hurt, when he was averaging over 35 points per game and was on pace to score more points than minutes played — something only Wilt Chamberlain has ever done in the history of the NBA. The injury also cost Embiid a chance at defending the MVP he won last season, as well as a chance to make one of the All-NBA or All-Defensive teams.

In his absence, Philadelphia has cratered. Including Tuesday’s victory, the 76ers are now 27-8 this season when Embiid plays and just 14-27 when he doesn’t. Those issues with Embiid sidelined have left the 76ers in a precarious position when it comes to playoff seeding as they will wake up Wednesday two losses behind both the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat in the sixth and seventh spots, respectively, in the Eastern Conference standings.

But while Philadelphia has a massive game ahead in Miami against the Heat Thursday night, the focus here was on Embiid making it through his first game in over two months unscathed.

Embiid, who went through his first full contact, 5-on-5 practice Saturday without any issues, was still listed as out for Tuesday’s game as late as two hours before tipoff. But just before 76ers coach Nick Nurse spoke to the media at 5:45 p.m. ET, a 76ers spokesperson said Embiid had been upgraded to questionable. And, after he took the court for his customary workout a little under an hour before tipoff, he reclaimed his customary spot as Philadelphia’s starting center.

It is far from the first time the 76ers have run afoul of the league’s injury reporting rules — which does not allow teams to switch a status from out to questionable within two hours of tipoff — and could cost the franchise a hefty fine as a result.

Still, it’s one the team will happily pay, as Philadelphia got its MVP back on the court and got a win to boot, thanks in large part to Embiid drawing a pair of fouls and hitting four free throws inside the final minute, all sandwiched around stealing the ball from Thunder guard Josh Giddey.

After, quite understandably, looking tired for stretches of the game, it was an impressive burst of energy at the end of his 29 minutes of action.

“I think minutes-wise that was probably where I thought we would end up,” Nurse said, as Embiid played in shorter stints than he typically would throughout the game in order to have more energy during them. “I thought we got a good start into the half and it mapped out, something like that, minutes-wise. I thought the biggest impact, he scored some, I thought he passed the ball really well, but again, when we start amping up our defense in the last six minutes he was down there again as I talked about before the game. Some of those [Thunder] drives didn’t look as productive, so that to me is where I really thought he impacted the game.

“He looked pretty good for not playing for a couple of months, that’s for sure.”

Not only has it been a couple of months since Embiid has played, but Tuesday also marked the first time he’d ever played with both of Philadelphia’s starting guards, Cameron Payne and Kyle Lowry, as well as reserve Buddy Hield off the bench — and the lack of chemistry was apparent at times.

Still, forward Tobias Harris said it shouldn’t take any of them long to get used to playing alongside one of the league’s dominant forces.

“Just get ready to pass him the ball, and then be ready for when he gets double teamed,” Harris said with a laugh. “Seriously, that’s really what it comes down to. I think, all those guys know how to play basketball. But he’s who we go through. He’s who the offense is generated by, having his presence out there and him being able to make plays are huge.”

Now, the focus will shift to Embiid’s recovery from this first game and how his left knee responds moving forward. He was able to play Tuesday because there were no flare-ups after his lengthy workout Saturday and Embiid said the plan is for him to play Thursday against the Heat — assuming there are no setbacks in that knee.

“I think it’s all about how it responds,” he said. “Hopefully everything goes well.

“We just gotta take it day by day, see how the knee responds tomorrow. We got a big one in Miami. If I’m good to go, obviously go. But I think, it’s actually funny, the timeline was eight weeks and I’m back on that eight weeks. So I think I’ve learned a lot over the years and I gotta take care of myself, gotta stay healthy because I still have a long career ahead of this.”

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