The news that Joel Embiid could be back for Saturday night’s clash with the Minnesota Timberwolves is huge for the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Cameroonian and the Sixers’ second-most important player in the absence of Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, are both being upgraded to questionable on the injury report ahead of the game.
The last time Embiid played he chalked up 30 points and 16 rebounds and hit a clutch three-point shot with 15 seconds left in the game as the Sixers beat the Chicago Bulls (four nights earlier he produced a vital game-sealing block against the same team) to take a sixth straight victory and move to 8-2, which was the best record in Eastern Conference at the time.
Joel Embiid rejected DeMar DeRozan with six seconds left in the game to seal the 76ers’ win over the Bulls
Since then, they’ve only gone 2-7 to stay barely above .500 with a 10-9 record but the fact they have managed to do so could prove important upon the superstar’s return.
The 76ers have just finished a long series of games on the road, recording four defeats and two victories (against Denver and Sacramento) which has seen them fall away from the forefront of the Eastern Conference standings.
After finishing the trip out west, the Sixers return home and with Harris and Embiid set to return, it could signal a reboot for the team.
Doc Rivers was quoted as saying: “There’s no cavalry coming right now”, when the team was blown out by Utah, but the cavalry is about to return. In fact, in the form of Embiid, who has been out as part of the league’s COVID health and safety protocols, they have a one-man siege engine.
‘The Process’ averaged 21.6 points per game, 9.4 rebounds per game and 4.0 assists per game before being sidelined and is the fulcrum of the offense. Having him back will greatly expand the Sixers’ repertoire and will give them a go-to option if the offense in the half-court becomes bogged down.
Joel Embiid scores 30 points and grabs 18 rebounds in the Philadelphia 76ers’ victory over the Detroit Pistons in Week 2 of the NBA.
At home in the south of Philadelphia, they are 4-4 (4-1 prior to Embiid’s injury, but on a three-game home losing streak since he went down) so far this season, but the Wells Fargo Center can be a fortress and now they will need it to be to help straighten out their form given how much they’ve struggled without their All Star African center.
Regardless of whether he plays in this one, no doubt the Timberwolves will provide a stern test on Saturday night, live on Sky Sports Mix and Sky Sports Arena at 11pm. Minnesota has won five out of their last six games and are within touching distance of the playoff places in the Western Conference with their 9-10 record so far, before taking on the struggling Orlando Magic (4-16) on Monday night.
Chris Finch’s outfit now seem like a tougher proposition to beat than they did at the start of the season and have plenty of scoring punch in their ranks. As well as the talents of Karl-Anthony Towns, who dropped 25 points against the Spurs and Hornets recently and 28 points against Pelicans, and D’Angelo Russell, who scored 28 points against the Grizzlies, the Timberwolves roster boasts one of the players generating the most buzz in the NBA right now, the top pick in the 2020 draft, Anthony Edwards.
Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards celebrates after a dunk against the Houston Rockets
There have been some outrageous plays and games from the 20-year-old recently. Some proper poster plays like when he crushed the basket against the Heat, showing outstanding vertical hops and when top-scored for the team against the Kings (26 points) and the Heat (33 points).
How Philadelphia deals with the triple-threat offered by Minnesota will be key and the next two games being at home gives Philly a chance to lay down a marker and pick up a couple of important wins before heading on the road again. That next trip will see the Sixers face some Eastern Conference rivals: the Celtics in Boston, the Hawks in Atlanta and the Hornets twice in a double-header in Charlotte before coming back home to face the Jazz.
Regardless of the imminent return of two of the team’s stars, one thing that’s going to be vital for the Sixers is for Tyrese Maxey to maintain his excellent production. He’s averaging 18.7 points, 3.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game on 50 per cent shooting and 38.7 per cent from beyond the arc. The 21-year-old has taken a leap for the team this season and since Embiid has been absent, he’s undertaken an even more prominent role, averaging 23.7 points with 48.8/42.1/91.1 shooting splits.
Philadelphia 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey reacts after making a shot in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets
Other role players who have done well are Andre Drummond – who had 24 rebounds against the Kings – and Seth Curry who led the team with 24 points up against his brother Stephen and the Golden State Warriors in the Bay Area.
The league is nearly through November now, and without their best starting five available for the entire season so far (including Simmons’ absence), the Sixers have shown some good moments and good resistance to grind out some results. There hasn’t been too much pressure put on the team from Doc Rivers and the coaching staff, given how long remains in the season and that appears to have worked in their favour.
The main thing for Philly is getting everyone back healthy, ensure they stay in touch with the playoff places throughout the season and round into their best for around April and May when it matters most.