By Tom Ignudo

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Sixers’ superstar Joel Embiid might be able to return to the series against the Miami Heat sooner than some initially expected. On Sunday, ESPN reported that there’s optimism that Embiid could return as soon as either Game 3 or 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Embiid would need to clear concussion protocols and see a doctor later this week to check out his orbital fracture in order to play. Last week, Embiid was evaluated by specialist to determine the severity of the injury, and there was no indication the fracture will require surgery, according to ESPN. In 2018, Embiid had a left orbital bone fracture that needed surgery and he was out about three weeks.

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Embiid took a hit in the face late in Game 6 against the Toronto Raptors from Pascal Siakam as he drove to the lane. He was in pain immediately after he got hit and even told NBA TV after the game that he thought Siakam broke his face.

Embiid won’t travel with the team to Miami on Sunday as he continues to recover. ESPN reports that, “There’s an expectation that Embiid will clear protocols for the concussion soon, sources said, and he’ll need to be cleared to play with the facial injury — presumably with a protective mask.”

The Heat are also dealing with injuries. Villanova product and Philly native Kyle Lowry has already been ruled out of Game 1 due to a hamstring injury. They also have several players like forward Jimmy Butler, P.J. Tucker, and guard Tyler Herro on their injury report.

If the Sixers want to make this a series, a split in Miami would be ideal, especially with the potential of Embiid coming back for Game 3 or Game 4.

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James Harden had his best game of the playoffs in Game 6 against Toronto, and the Sixers will need the former MVP to be more aggressive with Embiid out for the beginning of the series. The same also goes for Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris.

“I think everybody is counting us out,” Harden said. “Everybody is doubting us cause Jo is out, whatever the case may be. We focused on what’s in house and how we can get better.”

Head coach Doc Rivers told reporters on Sunday that the Sixers could use all four backup centers — DeAndre Jordan, Paul Reed, Charles Bassey, and Paul Millsap — in the series against the Heat.

Game 1 of the series starts at 7:30 p.m. at FTX Arena in Miami on Monday. Philadelphia and Miami split the series against each other during the regular season.

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“We have a lot of guys in this room that have experience, that are willing to go out there and play hard every night,” forward Georges Niang said. “And the show must go on. And obviously like I said, we’re really going to miss Joel, but that can’t stop us from going out there and going down  and getting Game 1 and Game 2.”