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“I’m not making excuses for him,” said Sixers forward Tobias Harris, “but the playoffs, second round, intensity, physicality, all those things keep upping, and he was really just trying to feel himself out out there and see what felt right.”

By Barbara Murphy

Joel Embiid’s first-half defense was amazing:

Five blocks and several more drives he deterred once his rejection of a Jaylen Brown dunk attempt proved his knee would not prevent him from protecting the rim.

It was not until late in the second quarter that Embiid made his presence known on offense, finishing a pocket pass from James Harden in traffic. Then, inside of a minute before halftime, Embiid took Horford off the dribble on the left side and threw down a monstrous dunk to draw the 76ers within 50-44.

That was the extent of his impact. The game caved in on the Sixers in the third, when Boston’s Malcolm Brogdon made 3 of his 6 3-pointers during an all-hands-on-deck, long-distance barrage. Rivers called timeout to stop the bleeding with 2:19 left in the quarter, during which an official review removed an Embiid bucket that failed to beat the shot clock a minute earlier. The air came out of the newly crowned MVP’s return. His night was done. Boston owned an 83-60 advantage and built the entire lead on Embiid’s watch.

“Early on, they realized Joel was there, and after the third or fourth blocked shot they kept driving,” said Rivers. “The difference is they were kicking it out, and we didn’t do a good job of scrambling back out.”

In the meantime, the Sixers will try to strike a balance between what worked in Game 1 — spacing for Harden, whose 45 points on 30 points in the series opener cratered to 12 on 14 in deference to Embiid — and reincorporating the reigning MVP. If their demeanor in the aftermath of the loss were any indication, they are hopeful some combination of shaking off Embiid’s rust, matching Boston’s effort, manufacturing more than 13 assists and closing a 42-point gap at the arc can hold the home-court advantage they stole.

“We’ll fix it,” said Embiid.

“It’ll be easy to see on film,” added Rivers, “and it’ll be easy to fix.”

Game plans might be. Injuries? Not so easy to fix.

“If I would’ve come back in Game 3, I’m probably rusty and not myself, but I feel like I just got this out of the way,” said Embiid. “I’m disappointed by the loss, but that’s a step towards getting back to myself. Obviously, I’ve got a lot of work to do. That starts tonight and tomorrow to make sure I’m ready for Friday.”

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