Takeaways from the Sixers win against the Thunder in Embiid’s return

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Oklahoma City Thunder’s Luguentz Dort, top, goes up for a shot against Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, April 2, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Philadelphia 76ers won a thriller last night over the Oklahoma City Thunder as Joel Embiid returned to the court for the first time in two months.

After an exciting night that resulted in a Sixers victory, here are some takeaways from the game.

Injuries taking toll

Sixers embiid
Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid, left, tries to get past Oklahoma City Thunder’s Jaylin Williams during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, April 2, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Sixers trailed most of the game even though the Oklahoma City Thunder were without two key starters, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams. SGA and Williams are two young integral pieces to the sudden success of the Thunder. 

One would not think the second-youngest team in the league would be atop the NBA Western Conference. Alexander, their burgeoning star, who is garnering MVP favor within some NBA circles, has been dealing with a quad issue and missed three of the last four games. Had he played, the ball surely would have been in his hands late in the fourth quarter instead of Chet Holmgren, who turned the ball over, leading to Joel Embiid’s free throws.

The Sixers were short-handed, too. Tyrese Maxey missed the game, as well as Robert Covington and De’Anthony Melton. While they were missing Maxey, the league’s reigning MVP returned to the court for the first time since January. Embiid’s defensive presence alone was impactful, but he was winded most of the game and conscious of his recently healed knee.

When it comes to the Sixers, a sigh of relief will be shared among fans to know that the team’s roster, adjusted while Embiid rehabbed his knee, will be stitched together soon. With so many injuries hindering any chemistry built between the old and new players, it could be a detriment to any postseason hopes against teams that have had good health this season.

Teams like Boston and Milwaukee have not been as devastated by injury as much as the Sixers. The last few games of the season are crucial to Nick Nurse’s team because new additions like Cam Payne and Buddy Hield have had little time to gel on the court with Embiid as the primary scorer.

Isn’t it ironic?

Oklahoma City Thunder’s Josh Giddey, right, tries to get past Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid, center, and Kelly Oubre Jr. during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, April 2, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Sixers were lucky to win this game. They turned the ball over more (18-15) and had fewer assists (27-30), which helped OKC grow their lead to 13 points. They looked disjointed, and it seemed the Thunder were about to pull away until Kelly Oubre hit a pair of threes on consecutive possessions, starting a second-half rally. It is ironic that Oubre was languishing in Charlotte until he signed with the Sixers, replacing a player in P.J. Tucker who is bitter out in Los Angeles and pretty much unplayable.

The true irony from last night does not stem from an off-season move or a single game coming down the regular season stretch. The irony of this matchup at this point of the season is that the Sixers are a much older team with heftier salaries, yet have an inferior record to the Thunder. Sure, Embiid missed two months of action, but the long-term trajectory of the franchises is vastly different. Why?

The Sixers have gone through more drama than any other NBA franchise in the past decade. From busted draft picks to perpetual injuries from Embiid, luck has never been on Philly’s side in the 2010s. Ever since Sam Hinkie was given the green light by ownership to pile up assets in hopes of capturing lightning in a bottle like the 2011 OKC Thunder, the team has underachieved. 

The true irony of the matchup last night is about each teams’ process toward success. It is actually laughable how one franchise has emerged as a top contender despite conventional thinking that a young team can’t be a top contender while the other is struggling to avoid the play-in seed. The Sixers organization did its best to preach patience, with faith that their picks would turn out. How many second-round exits have the Sixers racked up in the past few years?

The Thunder on the other hand? They did not “sacrifice” winning at the expense of their fanbase and put dreck on the court for multiple years. They just kept chipping away, developing young players and scouting hidden talent. Like other teams that made Finals appearances since 2013, Denver, Miami, Phoenix, Boston, Milwaukee, the Oklahoma City Thunder did not need to tank. 

The irony of these two franchises is like the tide pulling away from opposite shores and pushing back in. For the Thunder, their tide brought back youth and value. For Philly? You can insert any metaphor that your frustration imagines. The bottom line is the Sixers won the game, but the Thunder won the process. In the short term versus the long term, OKC has a promising future ahead. For the Sixers, the future is as unpredictable as a high draft pick under Hinkie or Byran Colangelo. 

If the Sixers fall to the eighth seed, it would mean an inauspicious matchup with Boston. The same team that has ousted the Sixers three times since Embiid has been in Philly – a team that has Jrue Holiday as their starting point guard, former Sixer Al Horford (who some jokingly accuse was a Celtic spy), and two players who were passed on in the draft to get Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons. 

If this is the case, how ironic would that be?