The Philadelphia 76ers (41-35) took a crack at the Oklahoma City Thunder (52-23) before heading on yet another road trip. Joel Embiid made his long-awaited return and the Sixers came back to win by a final score of 109-105.

Let’s break down Embiid's first game back.

76ers player notes:

Joel Embiid: 24 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals, 6-14 FG shooting

In his first game since January 30, Embiid moved around the court pretty well. He clearly wasn’t going all out like it was Game 7 of the Finals but he was far from phoning it in. His first time playing with several teammates seemed to go well, as he and Kyle Lowry knew how to play off each other pretty well right out of the gate. He went 12-12 on free throws.

Embiid's defense changed the Thunder's shot chart, deterring attempts at the rim all night. He kept his teammates involved really well, blowing way past his season average in assists. But his rust also showed in how he nearly matched his assist total in the turnovers column.

Still, in the end, Embiid is finally back. And he made his return a great one.

Cam Payne: 10 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 4-11 FG shooting

The way Payne simultaneously gets the offense going and does the dirty work is significantly valuable for the Sixers. While this isn’t how most guards would notch a double-double, he did a great job stepping into the starting lineup again.

Kelly Oubre Jr.: 25 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 8-16 FG shooting

After a rough go in the first half, Oubre turned his game around and got buckets in the second half. Without his scoring outburst, this game would not have ended so closely.

Thunder player notes:

Chet Holmgren: 22 points, 7 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 blocks, 7-14 FG shooting

The standout rookie had his minutes kept in check but was quite solid when he saw the floor. His comfort in putting the ball on the deck is impressive, though he did miss often on those shots. Defensively, he forced a bunch of misses with his stout shot contests at the rim.

Game recap:

All eyes were waiting to see whether Embiid would play in this game. It was reported that he should be able to return this week and this matchup was pointed to as the potential game the big man would finally be back. After being ruled out on the injury report for the whole day, he was upgraded to questionable and went through his pre-game warm-up routine as usual. He officially made his return after missing 29 games. Nick Nurse said that his minutes would be kept in check in his first game back.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (right quad contusion) and Jalen Williams (left ankle sprain) were inactive for OKC while Tyrese Maxey missed his second straight game due to left hip tightness. Mo Bamba was also out due to an illness.

1st half

Embiid matched up with Jaylin Williams defensively while Harris guarded Holmgren. The 76ers big man was put right back at the high post, screening for his teammates and running dribble handoffs. He was called for a charge on his first shot attempt and Nick Nurse challenged it. It was unsuccessful. He first got on the board with a tough jumper along the baseline over Williams.

The Sixers subbed Embiid out after just four minutes and change, bringing in Paul Reed in order to ease the reigning MVP back into it. Reed scored four quick points as Philly tried to keep pace with OKC, who jumped out to an early lead thanks to eight points from Holmgren. The game had a very frantic pace as the backups made their way in. Both teams looked to score early in the shot clock and coughed the ball up.

Embiid came back into the game in the final minutes of the first quarter, draining an open elbow jumper on an assist from Lowry. He was fouled on the same set-up the next time down, hitting his free throws. Embiid then fed Buddy Hield for a mid-range jumper out of a handoff. Getting familiar with his new teammates was a major objective for this game and he showed right away how he can unlock the best of them.

The Thunder's collection of young, tough defenders made things hard on Philly. Former Sixer Isaiah Joe was one of several players to make a defensive play by getting their hand on a pass. He flashed his calling card by draining a triple and also assisted Williams on a dump-off pass in the paint.  But while Joe and Holmgren could get threes to fall, the rest of their teammates were completely unable to connect in the first half.

Cam Payne did a nice job providing some offense when Embiid took to the bench. Kelly Oubre Jr. and Tobias Harris were both not on their best games, though the latter did at least shoot the three-ball very well. They both soured possessions with not-so-good shot selections and were not making up for it on defense.

In Embiid's final stint of the first half, he drained a step-back middie from the top of the key and played solid defense, though the Thunder were still able to hit their shots. Philly clearly looked out of sorts a bit and, even without their two star ball-handlers, the Thunder proved to be a handful.

At halftime, the 76ers trailed 54-44.

2nd half

Oubre tried to slam a dunk on Holmgren at the start of the half. He missed but at least drew a foul and hit the free throws. Embiid scored on another middie from above the nail, getting more and more in tune with his marquee shot as the game went on. He then assisted Harris for a three, giving some much-needed cohesion to the Sixers' offense. But they were still too porous on defense to get closer to taking the lead.

Embiid was getting frequently double-teamed by the Thunder, drawing a second defender after facing up Williams and beginning his move. The spacing around him was suboptimal on several possessions, leaving him with nowhere to go. When they switched things up, Embiid spread the ball around extremely well. He played seven straight minutes to begin the third quarter.

The Sixers managed to cut the deficit down to three with Payne containing to provide a spark on offense. KJ Martin's playmaking down low proved to be crucial, as was Reed's finishing at the rim. Philly trailed by seven heading into the fourth quarter. Oubre hit a pair of triples at the start of the period to make it a one-point game. Embiid checked in shortly thereafter with over 10 minutes left.

Payne assisted Batum on a broken-play, wide-open dunk to tie the game up. Then 11 straight points from the Thunder, made possible by some brutal misses from Harris and a few fouls from Embiid, put them back ahead. Embiid checked back out with over six minutes left. For as badly as the 76ers wanted a win, they maintained the long-term vision and kept Embiid's stints short. But his night wasn’t over yet.

Reed stuffed a two-handed dunk Holmgren on a fast break, maintaining a strong performance off the bench before Holmgren got him back on an and-one layup and Embiid came back in. The Sixers immediately cut it back to a two-point game with the big man set to go the rest of the way.

The Thunder defense flustered Embiid to the point where he came up empty on several rushed shots. Part of his return is that he has to get a feel of how to create separation again. But when he got fouled on a drive, he came up big with two free throws. And despite his misfires on offense, he gave it his best effort and remained stellar on defense. The Sixers led by one with 37.5 seconds left.

Embiid, isolated with Giddey at the top of the key, picked his pocket and drew a shooting foul. Two more free throws added to the lead. Joe came up empty on some open three-point attempts and Philly came away with the stop. Embiid's first game in two months concluded in victory.

Assorted observations:

  • Josh Giddey got some extra boos from the Philly crowd. It’s not hard to imagine why.
  • Franklin the Dog doing a timeout act where he wrote “thank you” cards and addressed one to the Thunder for conveying to the Sixers the draft pick that they used on Maxey was pretty good.

The 76ers will start their last road trip of the regular season by playing the Miami Heat on Thursday.