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76ers’ Joel Embiid returns to the court wearing a mask with goggles

Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid couldn’t mask his happiness at scoring against Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

“The Phantom of the Process” made his dramatic playoff debut Thursday when Joel Embiid was cleared to play in Game 3 of his 76ers’ first-round series against the Heat. Philadelphia’s star center had been out since March 28 after suffering a broken left eye socket in an accidental collision with teammate Markelle Fultz during a game against the Knicks.

To protect his injured face, Embiid wore an unusual layer composed of a mask and goggles. According to ESPN’s Ramone Shelburne, the device was made of both carbon and poly carbonate, giving it added strength.

TNT viewers were told that the 76ers staff went through “20 iterations” to get the mask just right, taking special care because Embiid is at heightened risk of reinjury having suffered a similar facial injury during his lone season at Kansas in 2013-14. Earlier on Thursday, Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer cited a source in reporting that “a forceful blow to the orbital bone could even permanently damage the sight in [Embiid’s] left eye.”

Nevertheless, Sixers Coach Brett Brown said before Thursday’s contest that Embiid would not be on a minutes limit in his first game back, but that the center’s level of conditioning could be a factor. Brown added that the team would need to monitor Embiid in pregame warm-ups before clearing him to play, and apparently Philadelphia liked what it saw.

“Probably more assists for me,” Ben Simmons said with a laugh before the game, referring to the benefits of having Embiid back on the floor. “No, but he just changes the game, gets other guys shots, rebounds the ball, blocks shots. He really does everything.”

In an interview before the second quarter Thursday, Brown praised Embiid’s “defensive presence,” adding that his “mobility at 7-2 is just amazing.” Brown said that Embiid makes the 76ers “a whole team,” but cautioned, “It’s going to take some time, especially at the offensive end.”

During the second quarter, Embiid tossed his mask to the floor in apparent anger, at which point the goggles were stepped on by Miami’s Justise Winslow. TNT reported that the issue for Embiid was the goggles fogging up, and Philadelphia’s staff inspected the mask while Embiid was out of the game.

“As far as the mask, Justise stepped on it and tried to break with his hands. But little did he know we have about 50 of them,” Embiid said after the game. “It’s going to take much more than that to get me out of this series.”

Philadelphia has been one of the NBA’s hottest teams, winning 17 games in a row before losing Game 2, nine of which — including beating the Cleveland Cavaliers at home earlier this month — they won with Embiid sitting out. That part of the streak has been the latest impressive aspect of the Sixers’ rapid development this season, giving them pause about putting Embiid back out there before he’s completely ready to play.

While masks can help players compete with facial injuries, it is risky for someone like Embiid, who plays in the paint, to come back too soon and possibly catch an elbow or shoulder the wrong way. Not only was he making his playoff debut Thursday, but he was set to square off with Miami center Hassan Whiteside — a player he’s openly feuded with in the past.

Embiid had watched from the bench Monday night, with increasing frustration, as his 76ers lost for the first time in weeks. Immediately after the Game 2 loss, he took to Instagram and made it clear how he felt about being forced to sit out during the first two games of his team’s first-round series against the Heat.

“[Expletive] sick and tired of being babied,” Embiid wrote.

Then, he spoke to ESPN about it, and said, “I promised the city the playoffs and I’m not on the court, and I may not be on Thursday [for Game 3], either.

“I wish more than anything that I was out there. I just want the green light to play.”

Embiid has nicknamed himself “The Process,” after the famous “trust the process” mantra of former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, who began a slow rebuilding job that culminated in the team’s playoff berth this year, its first since 2012. The third overall draft pick in the 2014 draft, Embiid sat out his first two seasons in Philadelphia with foot injuries, then played just 31 games last season before appearing in 63 this season and earning his first all-star nod.

On Thursday, Embiid played like an all-star, even while shaking off some of the rust accumulated during his tree-week absence. He scored 23 points while taking just 11 shots from the field, adding seven rebounds, four assists and three steals as his 76ers pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 123-108 win.

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