This night was all about Joel Embiid.
The 76ers center returned Saturday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves after missing the previous 10 games with a left knee bone bruise. Embiid finished with 24 points, eight rebounds, two assists, and three blocks in the Sixers’ 122-113 victory at the Wells Fargo Center.
But he still has room for improvement, shooting 6-for-14 while missing all four of his three-point attempts and committing four turnovers in 28 minutes, 35 seconds. He also went 12-for-17 from the foul line.
”I thought he played OK. You could see the rust,” coach Doc Rivers said. “You know he turned the ball over a little. He didn’t execute very well down the stretch of the game. I thought part of that was he probably didn’t remember half of it.
“But we won the game. I wasn’t thrilled with how we played. It was one of those sloppy, ugly games.”
Embiid, back after suffering the deep bone bruise in his left knee on March 12, agreed with his coach’s assessment. He felt it was a great win for the Sixers, but said he had a bad game.
“You know I’m just trying to get my rhythm back,” Embiid said, “you know, just getting back in the groove and help these guys, offensively and defensively and to win some games.”
Tobias Harris scored 12 of the Sixers’ final 14 points to close out the victory. The power forward finished with a team-high 32 points.
The 10th-year veteran made 4 of 6 shots in the fourth quarter while the rest of the Sixers shot 4-for-11. He scored all 12 of his fourth-quarter points in the final 3:24 after the Timberwolves closed the gap to four points (108-104). He took advantage of the mismatches.
“Win by any means,” Harris said. “That’s really my mentality. I know the fourth quarter is crunch time.”
The Sixers improved to 34-15 and pulled into a first-place tie with the Brooklyn Nets atop the Eastern Conference standings with 23 games remaining.
On this night, the crowd showed its appreciation for Embiid before the game started.
As he normally does, Embiid arrived on the court while his teammates were already in the pregame layup line. He was greeted by a huge applause from the crowd. Embiid raised his arms and smiled to acknowledge the crowd while walking toward the scorer’s table. The Sixers fans then chanted “MVP ... MVP ... MVP” after stretching at midcourt. It was the first of numerous “MVP ... MVP ... MVP” chants Embiid received on this night. He heard it after he made a basket and while at the foul line.
“I love having fun with them,” Embiid said of the fans. “I love their support. I missed them a lot all the time since ... last season.
“They were great. They gave me a nice, great welcome and I appreciate it.”
Embiid played the first 6:25 before Dwight Howard subbed in for him. Embiid, who wore a sleeve on his left leg, didn’t attempt a shot during his first stint on the court. He did have two points, two rebounds, and one turnover.
The 27-year-old checked back into the game 1:15 into the second quarter. His first basket was a dunk on an assist from Furkan Korkmaz with 8:34 left in the half to give the Sixers a 40-32 lead. However, Embiid’s most exciting play came when he drove the lane, collided with Karl-Anthony Towns, and scored on an off-balance and-one while falling backward on the floor. After the ball went through the hoop, Embiid celebrated while laying on his back.
He got up and completed the three-point play to give the Sixers a 63-54 lead with 1:32 left before intermission. Embiid scored 13 points on 3-for-7 shooting and making 7 of 11 foul shots to go with five rebounds in the second quarter.
Embiid had nine points on 3-for-7 shooting to go three blocks and three turnovers after intermission. He said it was tough endurance-wise for him after missing 10 games.
“[Friday] was really the first time I went full court since I got hurt,” he said. “So it’s going to take a while to get back to myself. But my body feels great, obviously game shape is different than how your body feels.
“But the main thing is my body feels great. I’ve just got to keep putting up these games and these practices and I will be back to where I was before I got hurt.”
Towns came to play. The two-time All-Star finished with game highs of 39 points and 14 rebounds as the Timberwolves (12-38) suffered their second straight loss and seventh in nine games. Towns fouled out with 11.5 seconds left.
He had one sequence where he dunked on Embiid before blocking Matisse Thybulle’s shot on the ensuing possession.
“Just a play, two points, felt good to get two points on the board [on the dunk],” said Towns, who has a history with Embiid. “I ain’t worried about that squabble. I’m trying to get wins.”
But he did thrive in the role of the villian as the Sixers fans booed him just about every time he touched the ball.
The boos stemmed from when Embiid and Towns were both ejected for fighting in the third quarter of a game on Oct. 20, 2019 at the Wells Fargo Center. The two have a history of talking trash to each other. On that night, they shoved each other at the Timberwolves’ end of the court while the Sixers pushed the ball at the other end of the court.
Towns then threw a punch that missed and put Embiid in a headlock.
On this night, Embiid delivered a hard foul on Towns in the third quarter. He helped his opponent up and both players kept their cool. Then, with 7:38 left, Embiid received a Flagrant Foul 1 for another hard foul on Towns. Again, both players kept their cool.
“It’s a game,” said Towns, who shrugged off the fouls. “I’m not here to live out a narrative people want. i’m here to win the game, just play the game. I take hard fouls every game”
This was Embiid’s first game since landing awkwardly after a dunk against the Wizards. His knee bent back, obviously in the wrong direction, as he hyperextended it.
“When I got hurt and laying on the floor in Washington, I honestly thought I was done,” Embiid said. “I thought my season was done. You know, the pain, you know how bad it was hurting, I just knew that it was something worse than we saw.
“[Afterward] I was just crying and asking myself, ‘Why me? Why does it always happen to me?’ When everything seems to be going well for my team and myself, something always has to happen.”
Embiid is glad that it wasn’t as bad as he feared, and it was just a bone bruise. He’s elated that he’s able to get back on the court and can now help the Sixers attempt to go on a championship run.
But on Saturday, Harris was the savior.