Joel Embiid returns from knee injury to lead Sixers' comeback win over Thunder

Gina Mizell, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Basketball

PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid got up from the bench with less than five minutes to play, his Sixers suddenly surging back within striking distance against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

In that final stretch, the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player sank a game-tying jumper. He flew in to challenge a shot at the rim. He grabbed an offensive rebound, drew the foul and sank the go-ahead free throws.

And with less than 30 seconds to play, Embiid swiped the ball from Josh Giddey, and again drew contact while barreling toward the basket.

Embiid totaled a game-high 24 points — including four game-clinching free throws as “MVP!” chants once again rang through the Wells Fargo Center — six rebounds, and seven assists in his return from a two-month absence following knee surgery, propelling the Sixers to a 109-105 comeback victory.

Embiid played about half of the first two quarters, then re-entered for the stretch run of each period. He missed five of his first eight shots. But he flashed the inside-outside offensive game that made him the league’s most dominant scorer before his injury.

The win guarantees that the Sixers (41-35) will not lose ground in the Eastern Conference postseason picture with six regular-season games remaining. They entered Tuesday in eighth place in the standings, and 1 1/2 games behind the seventh-place Miami Heat (who hosted the New York Knicks Tuesday) and 2 1/2 games back of the sixth-place Indiana Pacers (who were off Tuesday). That sets up a crucial Thursday showdown in Miami for the Sixers.

Though Embiid returned, the matchup was lacking its maximum possible star power. Sixers All-Star guard Tyrese Maxey missed his second consecutive game with left hip tightness, while Thunder MVP candidate Shai-Gilgeous Alexander was out with a right quadriceps bruise.

Still, the Sixers hung with an Oklahoma City team that throughout this season has morphed from a feel-good story to a legitimate NBA title threat, sitting atop the Western Conference with a 52-23 record.


They quickly slashed an 11-point Thunder lead to three on a Paul Reed authoritative dunk with less than five minutes to play, before a Kelly Oubre Jr. steal and dunk got the Sixers within 101-99 with 3:42 to go. An Oubre and-1 dunk then put the Sixers up 104-103, before a Lu Dort follow finish put the Thunder back ahead by one with less than a minute to play.

The Sixers initially cut into a double-digit lead in the third quarter, with a Reed layup to get the Sixers within three (76-73) with less than two minutes remaining in the period. Then, back-to-back 3-pointers by Oubre cut the Thunder’s lead to 80-79 less than two minutes into the final frame. About two minutes later, Nico Batum tied the game at 83 with a dunk.

But the Thunder answered with 11 consecutive points, including an old-fashioned three-point play and rim-rocking dunk by Aaron Wiggins, a deep shot by Gordon Hayward that bounced into the net, and a 3-pointer by former Sixer Isaiah Joe.

Oubre scored 21 of his 25 points in the second half, and added six rebounds. Tobias Harris added 18 points, six rebounds, and four assists for the Sixers. Reed had 12 points and nine rebounds, while Cameron Payne totaled 10 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists while again occupying Maxey’s spot in the starting lineup.

Oklahoma City closed the second quarter on a 21-9 run — capped by two 3-pointers from Joe — to build a 54-44 halftime lead. That advantage grew to 13 points when Dort opened the third quarter with a 3-pointer before the Sixers began chipping away to set up the fourth quarter for a thriller.

Next up, the Sixers embark on their final road trip of the regular season. Following Thursday’s game in Miami, they will play at the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday and at the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday.

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