When Joel Embiid first returned to the Sixers from his nine-game absence after an ugly battle with COVID-19, the All-Star center looked like he barely lost a step. Despite questioning his ability to play following a brutal conditioning workout the day before the Minnesota Timberwolves matchup last Saturday, Embiid flashed brilliance in the double-overtime loss.
A lot has changed since Embiid's impressive 42-point outing, though. As the Sixers hosted the Orlando Magic in the next game, the All-Star big man struggled as he shot just 4-16 from the field for 16 points in 29 minutes.
His Wednesday night outing against the Boston Celtics wasn't any better. As he checked in for 33 minutes in Boston, Embiid led the Sixers in shot attempts with 17 total. Unfortunately, only three of his shots went in.
Although Embiid got to the free-throw line five times, he drained just six of those shots. Overall, Embiid finished the game with 13 points. While he had a decent defensive outing, his struggles on offense really hurt the Sixers as they took on their 11th loss of the year in 22 games and left some cause for concern regarding his performances in two of the three games he's played in since returning.
After the game, Embiid was asked whether the after-effects of COVID-19 had been bothering him or not. As many players, including Sixers veteran guard Seth Curry, have felt a lot different on the floor for some time after dealing with COVID in the past, Embiid's answer wasn't too surprising.
"I will never use it as an excuse," Embiid said on Wednesday. "But it's gonna take me a while to get back. Especially legs and cardio and all that stuff. Every single day, I just gotta keep working hard and keep getting better."
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers doesn't seem too concerned about Embiid's recent play. While his dip in production has undoubtedly affected the Sixers in a negative way, Rivers is preaching patience when it comes to the big man.
"Some guys come back quickly and play pretty well," said Rivers. "A lot of guys have played the one great game when they're back and then go into a little fog. You can tell he's definitely struggling just getting going. We just gotta keep playing him and let him play through it. We've done pretty well with Joel. So, we're gonna keep putting him in the same spots overall, and he'll respond. He's a pretty good player."
With the Celtics in the rearview, the Sixers will now travel to Atlanta to face the Hawks for the second time this season. Philadelphia will benefit from having a day off on Thursday, but the remainder of their four-game road trip won't be a walk in the park for Embiid and the Sixers as the big man works on getting back to being himself.
Justin Grasso covers the Philadelphia 76ers for Sports Illustrated. You can follow him for live updates on Twitter: @JGrasso_.