Sixers star Joel Embiid returns from bout with COVID-19: 'I really thought I wasn't going to make it'
PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid made his long-awaited return to the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night after missing nine games, only two of which the Sixers won, due to a positive COVID-19 test.
While Embiid was a welcome sight for anybody associated with the organization, it shouldn't be a big surprise that the Sixers struggled for stretches during his first game in three weeks.
Embiid and the Sixers were sluggish at the outset, resulting in having to play from behind nearly all evening on the way to a 121-120 double-overtime defeat to the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Wells Fargo Center.
Embiid was thrilled to be back after "that (COVID) jawn hit me hard" and resulted in him having trouble breathing and "headaches worse than a migraine."
"I mean, I really thought I wasn't going to make it," said Embiid, who is vaccinated. "It was that bad. I'm thankful to be sitting here."
Minnesota big man Karl-Anthony Towns, who got into a fight with Embiid during a game a little over two years ago for which both players were ejected and suspended, said afterward that he was glad to see Embiid healthy again.
"That's bigger than basketball," said Towns, whose mother Jacqueline died of complications from COVID in April 2020. "I've seen people die from that."
Embiid hit 1-of-4 shots in the first eight minutes and took a while to find a rhythm against Towns and the Timberwolves. He ended up scoring 25 of his game-high 42 points in the fourth quarter and OTs by shooting 12-for-23 from the field, 16-of-21 from the foul line and grabbing 14 rebounds in 45 minutes. Towns (28 points, 10 rebounds) fouled out in the final minute of regulation.
"Joel was phenomenal tonight, but we still lost the game," said Sixers coach Doc Rivers. "Joel would take 30 (if they could've won). ... Give him credit (because) he's been working out and he showed us that."
The Sixers were playing their first home contest after going 2-4 on a six-game road trip that concluded with Wednesday's defeat at the hands of the league-leading Golden State Warriors, while the Timberwolves completed a back-to-back after dropping a 133-115 decision to the Hornets on Friday in Charlotte. That would seem to be about even in terms of difficulty.
The 10-10 Sixers trailed by 18 points early in the third quarter when Rivers put Danny Green, who came off the bench because he's on a minutes restriction due to hamstring tightness, in for Matisse Thybulle. The deficit was only two going into the fourth period.
Embiid missed a free throw with one minute left in regulation and had a pair of turnovers in the final minute of the initial overtime that he was lamenting afterward.
"I didn't think I was going to play tonight," Embiid said. "To me, it's a miracle I played this many minutes, but it's good. Tonight is on me. I turned the ball over too much (four times) and missed a couple free throws."
The Wolves hadn't beaten the Sixers in more than five years, dating back to a 110-86 drubbing on Nov. 17, 2016. Sergio Rodriguez and Gerald Henderson were the Sixers' starting backcourt that night.
Follow Tom Moore on Twitter @TomMoorePhilly.