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Joel Embiid returned to the Philadelphia 76ers' lineup on Tuesday, eight weeks after having surgery to address an injury to the lateral meniscus in his left knee. Late in the fourth quarter, he stole the ball from Oklahoma City Thunder guard Josh Giddey on the perimeter, then went coast to coast, drew a foul on the fast break and made the two ensuing free throws. He finished with 24 points on 6-for-14 shooting, six rebounds, seven assists, three steals (and six turnovers) in 29 minutes, and he made all 12 of his free-throw attempts in the 109-105 win.

It was a successful return, but it was not seamless. Asked how he felt in a walkoff interview on TNT, Embiid told Jared Greenberg, "Not good. But I'm glad we got through it and we got the win."

Embiid then told Greenberg that "a lot" went into getting him back on the court. "It took a toll mentally," he said. "I just wanted to come back. I think we got a chance, even at the level that I'm at. And I'm only going to get better. But this one was probably the hardest, by far, especially mentally."

In a scrum at his locker, Embiid elaborated.

"It was not a good one," he said, via The Rights to Ricky Sanchez's Dan Olinger. "Usually, when I have injuries, I just tell myself move on, onto the next one, get better and then fix it. But this one, it took a toll mentally. Being depressed. And it was not a good one. Still not where I'm supposed to be, especially mentally, but I just love to play. I love basketball and I want to play, and, any chance that I can be out there, I'm going to take it."

Embiid described the injury as both "disappointing" and "depressing."

"It took me a while to get over, and I still haven't gotten over it," he said. "So I just gotta take it day by day, look at the positive: I'm back. So, hopefully, every single day, try to get better and get back to myself."

When a reporter said it looked like Embiid was moving well, the reigning Most Valuable Player said, "You think so? I don't think so. I thought I was pretty bad." When a reporter said it looked like he'd lost some weight, he said, "No, I gained 50 pounds," laughed, and continued: "No, I don't know. I gained a lot of weight, so I'm pretty fat right now. But it's OK. I'll get back to myself. My face still looks skinny, though. But no, it's hard. Any time you're not playing, it's impossible to get in shape. It doesn't matter what you do."

Embiid said he "thought there was a chance I could be better" leading up to the game, but "then you get in the game and it's totally different." Playing in games is "the best way to get in shape and that's how I've always done it," he said, "so I'm excited to keep pushing myself and hopefully, I get to where I want to be."

The Sixers (41-35) are eighth in the Eastern Conference and have six games remaining on the regular-season schedule, including a big one Thursday against the seventh-place Miami Heat (42-33) and a back-to-back in Memphis and San Antonio this coming weekend. On his status going forward, Embiid said, "I think it's all about how the knee responds. Hopefully, everything goes well." He then made note of the back-to-back and said, "I mean, according to [the team], I should never play back-to-backs in my life, so. But we'll see. We'll see if that's the best decision."

He added, "I think I've learned a lot over the years and I gotta take care of myself, gotta stay healthy because I still have a long career ahead of me. So I think it's all about now and the future. So if something doesn't feel right, then they're going to shut it down."

Embiid has experience coming back from injuries, but said he understood that "this time, it's a little different, so it's going to take me a while to get back to myself and really trust myself." While he's getting up to speed, he thinks his presence can help "provide space for everybody, attract attention and get guys wide open" and elevate Philadelphia's defense.

"That's why I was happy I got the last stop of the game," Embiid said. "Because I think I'm the best defender in the league."

Embiid said he thought he could have been better but was pleased with the win because "every one of these matters" and "I want us to go on a run" to close out the regular season. "The game was going faster than I could remember," he said. "But I just wanted to be out there. They sent double-teams every single possession, and just use that to my advantage and get guys open." 

It was Embiid's first game with Kyle Lowry, Buddy Hield and Cameron Payne, and the Sixers were without Tyrese Maxey, who was sidelined due to hip tightness. Embiid said they were "all over the place" in the first three quarters, but "started playing so much better off of the double-teams" in the fourth.

Before the injury, Philadelphia was battling for the No. 2 spot in the East and Embiid was making a compelling case for another MVP award. Watching the team without him, "you get pissed off," he said, "because you feel like you could help and do something." Now that he's back, he's hoping the Sixers can get whole. They've been without Maxey for the last two games and without De'Anthony Melton (back) and Robert Covington (knee) much longer.

"Honestly, the only thing that I want is us to be healthy, whether it's Tyrese, Cov, Melt," he said. "I just want us to have that chance. Because we're not going to be as good without everybody. So it's not just about me."