The Philadelphia 76ers showed on Sunday night that they don’t need Joel Embiid to win as they stormed back from a 20-point deficit to beat the Pacers. Their work is certainly easier when the all-star big man is available, though.

Embiid returned Wednesday after missing the Sixers’ game against Indiana with back tightness and posted 34 points, 11 rebounds, two steals, and a block in a 118-111 victory over the Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum Center.

The Sixers have won all three games on their road trip, improving to 16-6 overall and 6-5 on the road.

Here are three takeaways on the Sixers’ win Wednesday.

Joel Embiid is too good to handle

Embiid preformed prominently right off the bat, taking six of the Sixers’ first 10 shots. During one especially strong stretch, he grabbed a rebound and went coast to coast for a dunk, then followed up the play on the Sixers’ next possession and nailed a three-pointer off a feed from Ben Simmons. 

Through 17 games, Embiid has shot 42.3% from three-point range. He entered this season having made 31.9 percent of his career three-point attempts, with a season-high mark of 36.7% his rookie year.

Given his soft sound shot and good track record at the foul line, Embiid has appeared to be capable of boosting his outside shooting numbers. 

When asked pregame about Embiid being named Eastern Conference Player of the Month, head coach Doc Rivers made it clear he’s not satisfied with the early-season awards the Sixers have earned, “Really, as a whole team we’ve just got to keep getting better,” Rivers said.

“It’s really nice, Joel winning Player of the Month, but I don’t think that’s why we started the season or what he wanted. He wants more. The better you play as a group, the more those things come to you. But that shouldn’t be a reason not to keep wanting to improve.” 

Before the season, Embiid also talked about team success coinciding with individual accolades. If the Sixers stay at or near the top of the conference and he keeps playing at this world-class level, he’ll have quite a few awards when the year is wrapped up. 

Early display of solid defensive 

Within the game’s opening nine minutes, the Sixers had a generous handful of excellent defensive plays. Embiid had a few by himself as he demonstrated no signs of rust as he disrupted Charlotte’s offensive rhythm with both his hands and feet on both the perimeter and interior.

Simmons and Danny Green each had impressive blocks, with Simmons swatting away a Devonte’ Graham corner three attempt, and Green erasing an easy fast-break layup for Gordon Hayward. 

The Hornets only managed to have 13 first quarter points, the fewest the Sixers have allowed in a quarter all season on 22.7% shooting.

After halftime, Charlotte’s shooters seemed to suddenly all find their groove at once, and the Sixers’ defensive energy dropped off as the Hornets trimmed a 26-point deficit to seven in the third quarter with a big run. Matisse Thybulle took a chance at what Rivers has been pushing him to avoid during that shaky quarter, leaping in search of a highlight block and fouling Graham on a three-point attempt.

Simmons committed a similar error with 5.1 seconds remaining in the game and the Sixers up seven points, a head-scratching late-game mistake. 

Rivers did not stick with the zone defense that motivated the Sixers’ comeback in Indiana. He trusts his team’s ability to defend man-to-man.

Rivers said, “It’s something that we’ll just use when we feel like we need it,” he said. “We believe in our man defense. … There’s a lot of reasons you play zone. Sometimes you’re trying to hide a guy in foul trouble, sometimes you’re trying to hide a bad defender on your team that’s on the floor and sometimes the other team has a great rhythm going and you try to knock them off rhythm.”

Scary injury for Milton

Shake Milton was down on the floor and in pain with 7:03 left in the second quarter after driving to the basket and taking an awkward step on his right leg as he was fouled. Milton stayed in the game to shoot his two free throws, then took a foul so he could head to the locker room with Sixers head athletic trainer Kevin Johnson. 

The 24-year-old returned to the bench several minutes later, surely a good sight for the Sixers. There were no discernible issues with Milton’s movement during his minutes in the second half.

Milton hyperextended his knee, according to the Inquirer’s Keith Pompey. 

The Sixers have relied on him as their main second-unit perimeter scorer, and he’s done well in that role despite a slow start from past the three-point line.

Milton’s defensive sturdiness and self-belief as a lead ball handler have made him the backbone of the Sixers’ bench and, projecting ahead, a key piece when the postseason arrives. He recorded 13 points on 4-for 12 shooting Wednesday. 

Overall, the Sixers’ second unit outscored the Hornets’ by a 27-24 margin, benefiting from the fact that Charlotte was shorthanded with typical starters PJ Washington (right foot sprain) and Terry Rozier (right ankle sprain) out. 

Five Sixers scored in double figures, including Tobias Harris with 26 points that weren’t flashy but came in efficient fashion. He went 9 for 9 from the foul line, season highs for him in both makes and attempts. 

Seth Curry, meanwhile, had zero points on 0-for-3 shooting. After testing positive for COVID-19 last month, Curry is not back at full health.

“It’s been tough, little injuries here and there, banged up a little bit,” he said Tuesday. “I think some remnants, also — just trying to get my energy all the way back. Some days I feel good, some days I’m just sluggish and feel like I’ve got to take a nap all day. It’s weird, but I’m grateful to be on the court every day and play.”

The 16-6 76ers play the 11-9 Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night at Wells Fargo Center.