After peeling back the curtains on his feelings about being ruled out of Game 2, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid is inching closing to a return. The team still listed him as doubtful for Game 3 against the Miami Heat on Thursday morning before upgrading him to probable in the afternoon.
76ers star Joel Embiid is expected to play in Game 3 against the Heat tonight, barring setback — likely with mask and goggles.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) April 19, 2018
Ruled out well in advance of the first two games of Philadelphia’s first-round series, Embiid took to Instagram after the Miami Heat’s 113-103 victory on Monday night, informing his 2.2 million followers: “F***ing sick and tired of being babied.” He participated in practice on Wednesday and at shootaround on Thursday, when Sixers coach Brett Brown told reporters his All-Star center had yet to be cleared.
“He still remains doubtful,” said Brown, via the Associated Press. “He went through stuff yesterday that was decent. He had a little bit of contact, trying to get used to the mask, felt some bodies.”
Still, Brown did not rule out the possibility of Embiid returning in Game 3 on Thursday morning:
Brown says Embiid went through some light contact drills yesterday. Says "everything is still on the table" with regards to Embiid's availability tonight.
— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) April 19, 2018
And the news got even better for Philadelphia fans in the hours leading up to tipoff.
Embiid has not played since suffering an orbital fracture during a collision with Sixers teammate Markelle Fultz on March 28. Brown told reporters on Thursday that a decision on the franchise player’s status for Game 3 would be determined collaboratively between the coach, Embiid and team doctors. We know where Embiid stands, and doctors were outfitting him for a new mask on Wednesday:
The #Sixers were making new protective mask for @JoelEmbiid on Wednesday. One that would protect him from poke in the eye as well as the fractures. Not sure that it will make the doctors comfortable enough that he can play tonight. Also not practiced in 5 on 5 @SportsRadioWIP
— Howard Eskin (@howardeskin) April 19, 2018
Embiid’s return would be a massive boost for the Sixers, particularly on defense, where they generated what was the equivalent of a league-best defense with him on the floor. The question is how quickly they can reincorporate him into an offense that has flourished with Rookie of the Year favorite Ben Simmons reaching another level finding shooters spacing the floor in a motion system.
Still, the sooner Philadelphia can reintegrate Embiid, who averaged 22.9 points, 11 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.8 blocks in 30.3 minutes per game in the regular season, the higher their ceiling in the Eastern Conference. He gives them a weapon in the post when the outside shots aren’t following, like they weren’t in Game 2, and a potentially deadly one against struggling Heat center Hassan Whiteside.
“Defensively, he immediately comes in and changes the landscape,” Brown told reporters on Wednesday. “The adjustment offensively might be a little bit more noticeable than defensively initially. He really is as smart and instinctive a player as I’ve coached. He can look at something without doing it and then go do it.
“As you would expect after being off how ever many weeks not playing, it’s going to take time getting his fitness up. Whenever the time comes where he does play, I think it will move in a more rapid way. His body looks great.”
With a healthy Embiid, the 76ers are a Finals contender. Without him, as we’ve seen through two first-round games, they’re in for a dogfight with a Heat team that stole homecourt advantage on Monday.
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