There were several factors at play, but the Sixers remained resilient mostly because of consistent defensive effort, remaining second in the league in defensive efficiency during the span Embiid was out.
The Sixers’ other stars, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris, also picked up the pace in Embiid's absence. Harris, in particular, averaged 21.6 points on 52.4 percent shooting with 6.9 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game.
Still, this Sixers team will only go as far as Embiid can take them, and finally having him back healthy against the Minnesota Timberwolves should have been a big sigh of relief. Sure, he didn't make a shot until the second quarter, and yeah, Karl Anthony Towns had a nice welcome back present for him.
OK, KAT 👀 pic.twitter.com/iIqIcCKb51— NBA TV (@NBATV) April 4, 2021
But Embiid came back and immediately assumed his role as Philadelphia’s superstar with barely any restrictions.
That's TOUGH, Joel! @sixers 64@Timberwolves 60— NBA (@NBA) April 4, 2021
Halftime on NBA LP pic.twitter.com/8xGZvQOWJI
Embiid was aggressive, piling up 13 free throw attempts in the first half alone. Getting matched up with a red-hot Towns was a good test of his energy, and he was keeping up with Towns around the perimeter. Embiid finished with 24 points, hitting 12-of-17 free throws with eight rebounds, two assists, and three blocks -- numbers still close to his season averages. Embiid was also a plus-20 throughout the game, showing just how different a team the Sixers are with Embiid on the floor.
Right after the All-Star break, Embiid was considered the frontrunner for MVP. Now having missed 16 games total this season, Embiid's case is a lot shakier considering that he was already getting scrutinized for his scheduled absences to deal with recurring injuries. After missing more than 20 percent of the total games this season, Embiid needs to go on a historically dominant run to get back in the MVP conversation.
There still isn’t a clear MVP race leader, but more players have solidified their claims. James Harden has fueled the Brooklyn Nets' indomitable offense with both Kyrie Iriving and Kevin Durant out for chunks of the season. Giannis Antetokounmpo is putting up numbers similar to his past MVP seasons. Nikola Jokic’s Denver Nuggets have been climbing the standings. Among the three, Jokic arguably has the best statistical case, so if the Nuggets get anywhere around the top three in the West, he could just outright win MVP.
Ultimately, even if Embiid doesn't win the award, the 76ers still need him to muster his MVP form for the next round. Embiid could be the singular force that decides the Eastern Conference playoffs as no team can truly match his overwhelming talent and size. The Nets’ buyout pickups of Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge are both geared towards matching up against Embiid. The Bucks might have to put Giannis on him in a seven-game series, but that leaves the floor open for Philly's other creators.
In his return, Embiid looked stellar, helping the 76ers handle a frisky Minnesota team. Now it's up to Doc Rivers and Philadelphia to make sure Embiid regains his form and stays healthy enough to finally make a deep playoff push.