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3 observations after Embiid returns, Sixers come back for tough win over Thunder

3 observations after Embiid returns, Sixers come back for tough win over Thunder originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

After managing just 11 wins during Joel Embiid's 29-game absence with a left meniscus injury, the Sixers can say they're 1-0 since his return.

They pulled out a tough comeback victory Tuesday night over the Thunder, earning a 109-105 win and improving to 41-35 this season.

Embiid had 24 points on 6-for-14 shooting, seven assists and six rebounds in 29 minutes.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 25 points and grabbed six rebounds. Tobias Harris tallied 18 points.

Chet Holmgren was OKC's leading scorer with 22 points. The Thunder fell to 52-23 on the season.

While Embiid returned, the Sixers were without Tyrese Maxey (left hip tightness), De’Anthony Melton (lumbar spine bone stress), Robert Covington (left knee bone bruise) and Mo Bamba (illness).

OKC’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (right quad contusion) and Jalen Williams (left ankle sprain) were out.

The Sixers will begin a three-game road trip Thursday night against the Heat. Here are observations on their win over the Thunder:

Embiid conditioning and comfort works in progress

Tuesday’s game was Embiid’s first since Jan. 30. His last outing in Philadelphia was a 70-point performance on Jan. 22 vs. the Spurs.

He was expectedly not the identical player from the jump. Holmgren scored the night’s first five points and OKC took a 9-3 edge.

Embiid was whistled for a charge against Aaron Wiggins on his first attack, a call he did not like whatsoever. Sixers head coach Nick Nurse opted to use an exceptionally fast challenge just 56 seconds into the game and the offensive foul stood on Embiid.

The superstar big man wore white leg sleeves and sported a brace on his left knee. Both his conditioning and comfort were obviously not near their peak levels. With his hands on his knees in the backcourt, Embiid pointed to the Sixers’ bench about four minutes in to request a sub.

It still didn’t take long to see some of the ways Embiid is extraordinarily skilled and valuable. He made a sharp defensive play in his opening stint when he deflected a pass on the perimeter and then won the ensuing chase for the loose ball against Jaylin Williams. He also knocked down a tightly guarded mid-range shot.

When Embiid re-entered late in the first quarter, he immediately drilled a right elbow jumper courtesy of Kyle Lowry. He smartly set Buddy Hield up for a mid-range hoop on the Sixers’ next possession, initiating a dribble handoff and recognizing the chance to get Hield an in-rhythm jumper.

Embiid may very well show further rust and fatigue late in this regular season, but there are absolutely reasons to believe he’s capable of greatness as long as he’s available.

Positive flashes offensively

Paul Reed began brightly, posting six points and six rebounds in the first quarter. Reed slammed in a reverse dunk to cut the Sixers’ deficit to 18-16 and Cameron Payne sunk a three-pointer to give the Sixers their first lead.

However, in a familiar story, the Sixers struggled to generate points in the second quarter with zero All-Stars on the floor. They endured a scoring drought of close to three minutes.

OKC’s offense wasn’t brilliant either, but the Thunder did characteristically strong work avoiding turnovers. OKC committed only two giveaways in the first half and scored the game's first 13 points off turnovers.

Embiid’s presence didn’t automatically cause the Sixers’ offense to shift into top gear, though there were certainly encouraging moments. The Sixers ran a nice designed play in the second quarter where a dribble weave action flowed into Embiid setting a step-up screen for Oubre. The lefty wing found Embiid rolling down the lane and he drew a foul. Given the circumstances, Embiid’s passing instincts also weren't shabby.

The points-off-turnovers disparity hurt the Sixers against OKC, but they should be able to score plenty when Embiid and Maxey share the floor again.

Oubre and Embiid difference-makers late

Isaiah Joe nailed two triples late in the second quarter, Lu Dort hit two early in the third, and the Thunder’s lead grew as high as 13 points.

Harris’ outside shooting helped the Sixers stay in the contest. The veteran forward made five three-pointers Tuesday night, tying his season high.

Oubre made two timely long-distance shots early in the fourth quarter as Embiid waited at the scorer's table to check in, trimming the Sixers' deficit down to one point. A second-chance Nicolas Batum dunk soon tied things up at 83-all.

The Sixers couldn't sustain their spurt and relinquished momentum quickly. They had a slow-moving, unsteady possession against OKC's zone, leading to a fast-break Wiggins dunk. Next time down, Harris was well off on two jumpers. Gordon Hayward's three-pointer got a generous bounce and Nurse called timeout with the Thunder's run at 8-0. OKC extended that to 11-0 before another Oubre three stopped the Sixers' bleeding.

Embiid's often been a tremendous run-stopper for the Sixers, but he didn't conjure anything during that damaging stretch. Still, the game was far from over because the Sixers continued to compete hard defensively and Oubre played a fantastic fourth quarter.

Oubre and Reed each turned steals into transition slams, Lowry took a charge on Dort, and Oubre threw down an and-one dunk off a baseline out-of-bounds play to put the Sixers up 104-103 with 3:02 remaining.

Embiid was rock-solid protecting the rim late and OKC missed several mid-range tries in a row. The Sixers couldn't get any shots to fall either, however, and Dort converted a put-back layup with just under a minute left. Two clutch Embiid free throws then gave the Sixers a 106-105 edge with 37.5 seconds to go.

Embiid delivered on the ensuing defensive possession, too. Switched on to Josh Giddey, Embiid stole the ball, rumbled ahead in the open floor, and earned another trip to the foul line. He made both those free throws and was 12 for 12 at the line overall.

The Sixers then survived two Joe three-point tries and one Jaylin Williams attempt on OKC's last possession to escape victorious.