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76ers prove they can stand tall, even without big man Joel Embiid

Philadelphia thrived without its star center, amassing a 7-3 mark and building team-wide confidence for the stretch run.

Joel Embiid is back in the mix after recovering from his left knee injury.

The fate of the Philadelphia 76ers took a sharp turn on March 12 when Joel Embiid fell to the floor and grabbed his bruised left knee, then again when the star center returned to the floor on April 3 and received a hearty welcome back.

Or maybe the real truth was what happened in between, when Philadelphia held firm without him, bonded together and refused to allow the temporary absence of a Kia MVP candidate harpoon their season or their place in the Eastern Conference, not to mention their realistic and lofty aspirations to travel deep into summer.

Yes, that 10-game stretch told us plenty about the Sixers, about Tobias Harris, about Ben Simmons and coach Doc Rivers. It also told us why Philly is still near the penthouse of the conference and warding off overthrow attempts from the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks. The Sixers went 7-3 without Embiid and showed the flex of a team that still must be taken seriously.

“When I got hurt, and was laying on the floor in Washington, honestly, I thought I was done,” Embiid said.

Maybe the same widespread belief was held about the Sixers’ place in the pecking order, too. At such time, James Harden and Kyrie Irving were revving up the Nets, who tore through March despite missing their best player (Kevin Durant). Meanwhile, the Bucks — who finished with the NBA’s best record the last two seasons — were aggressively seeking to reclaim a familiar spot.

But as the Sixers prepare to visit the Celtics, not only did they fail to drop in the standings, but their confidence is understandably at a season-high. Plus, now Embiid is healthy and they know the rest of the rotation aced the season’s biggest test so far. In the estimation of 76ers reserve center Dwight Howard, they played “lights out” given the circumstances.

The Sixers got off to a 5-1 mark without Joel Embiid, ultimately finishing 7-3 while he was out.

Harris soared in a primary scoring role, with performances that elevated him as a premier player. Simmons showed why the Sixers refused to swap him for Harden months ago by playing admirably at both rims. Then there were those who helped — Howard, Shake Milton, Seth Curry — and had moments when their minutes, roles and importance increased minus Embiid.

It was the kind of response a coach wants to see from a contender, to thrive in a moment of basketball adversity and demonstrate to their competition that they offer more than Embiid (who averaged 29.9 ppg, 11.5 rpg and 1.4 bpg in the 31 games before his injury).

As Harris said: “We did a good job of holding the fort down without the big fella … I take that stuff personal when people believe we can’t win [without him].”

Along the way were a few checkpoints where the Sixers mustered the grit and performances to pull them through, and other instances where they had good fortune. These were the most obvious:

The schedule cooperates: The Sixers saw only four top-five teams in those 10 games without Embiid, and one of them was the Los Angeles Lakers without LeBron James and Anthony Davis. They lost three of those games — to the Bucks, Nuggets and LA Clippers — serving proof that they’ll need Embiid to remain in title contention. There’s no such thing as an ideal time to lose a player of his magnitude, but March was a month that showed mercy on the vulnerable Sixers in terms of scheduling.

Tobias Harris’ play: He averaged 22 ppg, 7.4 rpg and 4.3 apg in a well-rounded March and took over for Embiid as the primary scoring option, making an efficient 52.5% of his shots. That included games of 30 points against the New York Knicks (including a clutch jumper) and 29 each against the Clippers and Sacramento Kings. Harris appears to be on a redemptive journey, not only to demonstrate his worth without (and now alongside) Embiid, but because he wasn’t selected as an All-Star, which didn’t sit well with him. At the very least, he’s a far different player than the one who struggled in the 2020 playoffs, and he’ll be looking to avenge that performance, too.

Tobias Harris has become a reliable force for the 76ers this season.

Ben Simmons’ command: He’ll never be the scorer that observers want him to be. Yet in this case, it doesn’t matter, especially this year with the Sixers flush with shooters. Instead, Simmons leaned on his strengths after returning from his own absence due to health and safety protocols, and provided typically solid defense (opponents scored 101 points or less in six of the 10 games against Philly) along with the rebounding help the Sixers needed without Embiid.

The 35-point wipeout win against the Spurs: Philly served notice right away by crushing San Antonio in its first game without Embiid. It was the kind of launch a team needed, at least from a psychological standpoint. Curry scored 21 in that blowout and the Sixers played with a noticeable swagger. Spurs guard Dejounte Murray remarked then: “They punched us in the face.”

Game Recap: Sixers 134, Spurs 99

Shake (and bake) Milton: In the 10th and final game without Embiid, Milton erupted for 27 points in 27 minutes against the Cleveland Cavaliers, displaying the firepower Philly wants from the sixth man. But he had other gems in that stretch, including 28 against the Kings and 21 against the Knicks, and March was one of his best months of 2020-21.

Dwight Howard plugging the gap: Quite predictably, Howard saw an uptick in minutes at center and performed as well as could be expected, if not better in some spots. He had seven double-digit rebound games among the 10 without Embiid, including 15 against the Cavs. This was a reassuring performance for a player who helped the Lakers in a similar role last season. Once again, here in his twilight, Howard has landed a comfortable role with a team that needs him.

A narrow OT loss to the Bucks: If there are silver linings in losses, the Sixers found one when they met the Bucks just two games after losing Embiid. And the Bucks needed a big finish by Giannis Antetokounmpo just to survive the 76ers in overtime. It was a meeting that easily could’ve gone south for the Sixers, yet they showed plenty of spunk by sticking with the Bucks and forcing Milwaukee to pull its two-time MVP emergency cord.

Finally, the Sixers won four of six in a recent road trip that preceded the return of Embiid. Rivers said “that was a heck of a trip for us” and it served as the finishing touch for a team that survived Embiid’s absence quite impressively.

What happens from here for Philly? Well, more than the Bucks and more than the Nets, the Sixers need to grab the top playoff seed if only for confidence reasons. Rivers said as much the other day, even if there’s no true home-court advantage, given the capacity-controls inside arenas.

That means Embiid will fortify a team that will seek to finish strong while also attempting to reclaim his place in line for the MVP race.

“I know how well we play together as a team as a whole,” Harris said. “We have a culture and a system here that works. When we trust it and do what is asked of us, we’re a hell of a team.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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