Joel Embiid emerged Wednesday night from the tunnel between the baseline and the 76ers bench to thunderous applause.

He surveyed his surroundings and gave his teammates high- fives while running onto the court during player introductions.

"I try to make it a regular day," Embiid said before the season opener against the Thunder at the Wells Fargo Center. "It's hard. You think what you've gone through the past two years, the loss of my brother and having to get another surgery and all of the ups and downs."

Oklahoma City escaped, 103-97, in a thriller thanks to Russell Westbrook. The NBA all-star point guard finished with a game-high 32 points, 12 rebounds, and nine assists in the come-from-behind victory.

But it can be argued that this expected loss didn't matter to a portion of fans in the Philadelphia area. To them, this was Joel Embiid Night.

The 22-year-old finished with 20 points, seven rebounds, and two blocks in his first real game - not counting preseason exhibitions - since a lower-back injury derailed him in March 2014 while at Kansas. Two and half years and two foot surgeries later, he is back on the court, seemingly better than ever.

"For a city to be rewarded for a player that we all understand has special gifts," Sixers coach Brett Brown said, "and play like he played, the city deserves it. Most importantly, he deserves it."

So Wednesday was a fitting scenario to make a debut. The 7-foot-2, 276-pounder faced the Thunder and their brute of a center, Steven Adams, in an ESPN game.

The self-proclaimed "Process" showed Adams and a national television audience that he just might be worth the two-year wait.

A stress fracture in his lower back ended his lone season at Kansas in a March 1, 2014, game at Oklahoma State. Still, he was projected to be the first overall pick in that year's NBA draft. However, all that changed when it was revealed a week before the draft that Embiid had a stress fracture in the navicular bone in his right foot.

The Cavaliers and Bucks - the teams with the first two picks - took him off their draft boards. Despite the uncertainty, then-Sixers general manager, Sam Hinkie, selected him third. The plan was to sit him for what was supposed to be his rookie season. He also had to deal with the death of his brother, Arthur, back in his native Cameroon on Oct. 16, 2014. Added to that, his bone never fully healed.

So Embiid had a second surgery - this time a bone graft - in August 2015 and also missed last season. All the while, the Sixers were criticized for drafting a player who in the minds of many would never play in a game.

"There are times that I get emotional watching him today in shootaround," Brown said. "And you see how many seats with white shirts on them, and it's opening night and Joel Embiid is here.

"To see him arrive now and tonight is a special night," he added. "I'm so proud of him."

It didn't take long for him give the Sixers crowd something to cheer about. He blocked Westbrook's 7-foot jumper 3 minutes, 59 seconds into the matchup.

Throughout the game, the crowd was chanting "Trust the process" or "MVP" when Embiid went to the foul line.

And, feeling it in the fourth quarter, he gave his opinion of Adams' defense to no one in particular.

Embiid was fouled by the Thunder center with 10:17 left while going to the basket. He yelled, "He can't guard me" while standing at the foul line. Embiid said the same thing on the Sixers' ensuing possession, when Adams hacked him again while going to the basket.

Embiid made 6 of 16 baskets and made 7 of 8 foul shots in his 22:25 of action.

"He's hard to guard," OKC coach Billy Donovan said. "He's herky-jerky. He's got a lot of [Hakeem] Olajuwon in him."

But Westbrook led the Thunder's late charge.

He responded with a pair of foul shots to give his team a 99-97 lead with 35 seconds left. Embiid missed a shot on the ensuing possession, but the Sixers retained the ball. After a Sixers timeout, Andre Roberson blocked Gerald Henderson's shot. Enes Kanter turned that play into a put-back layup at the other end to put OKC up four with 10.1 seconds left.

Reserve guard Nik Stauskas finished with 13 points on 5-for-6 shooting for the Sixers.

There was a lot of action off the court as well.

A fan was reassigned to a different  seat after giving Westbrook the double-barreled middle finger the standout made a first-quarter jump shot.

Recording artist Sevyn Streeter was supposed to sing the national anthem on Wednesday. However, she was denied minutes before going out there due to wearing a 'We Matter' jersey.  Another recording artist, Designer, was booed off the court after singing his hit 'Panda' during halftime.

kpompey@phillynews.com

@PompeyOnSixers

www.philly.com/sixersblog