'The MVP race is over': Embiid's 52 carries 76ers

PHILADELPHIA — After watching Joel Embiid dismantle the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night, Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers was certain of only one thing.

“We did so many things wrong,” Rivers said, “but what we did right was Joel Embiid.”

“The MVP race is over.”

There are still five days remaining in the NBA’s regular season. But after watching Embiid surgically take apart the Celtics, finishing with 52 points on a ridiculous 20-for-25 shooting performance in a 103-101 Philadelphia victory, it’s hard to blame Rivers for getting a little ahead of himself.

“Joel should win it,” said James Harden, who had 20 points and 10 assists in 40 minutes. “He’s been in contention for it the last few years. He led the league in scoring last year. It looks like he’s going to lead the league in scoring this year. We’re the third seed in the East. He’s been consistent all year.”

Embiid was consistently on fire for every one of the 38 minutes and 37 seconds he was on the court, doing whatever he wanted against a Celtics team that came into Tuesday night’s contest having won the first three meetings between the teams and has consistently had the 76ers’ number in recent years.

But on Tuesday, they didn’t have any answer for Embiid’s dominance.

“I think the whole league’s trying to figure that out right now,” Derrick White said when asked how to stop Embiid. “So, if you got any ideas, I think every other NBA team would like to know.”

Given these teams are very likely to meet in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Celtics would love to get some more ideas — though having both Jaylen Brown (back) and Robert Williams III (knee) on the court will help.

Embiid’s night was one for the history books, as he became the first player in the shot clock era to score more than half of his team’s points and shoot 80% from the field, and also joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to record at least 50 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 80% from the field.

And Embiid did it while getting plenty of attention thrown his way. According to ESPN Stats & Information’s player tracking metrics, Embiid was double-teamed 13 times, and Philadelphia shot 9-for-11 and scored 23 points on those possessions. Meanwhile, Embiid was an absurd 10-for-13 on contested field goal attempts.

“When he gets it going like that, no one can stop him,” said P.J. Tucker, who hit three massive 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to help Philadelphia close out the game.

Boston certainly couldn’t stop him Tuesday night as Embiid — on national television, no less — put forth a rather dramatic closing argument in an MVP race that, as ESPN’s final straw poll laid out last week, is as close between Embiid and Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic as any in NBA history.

When Embiid was asked about the comments from Rivers and Harden, he couldn’t help but crack a smile.

“They’re probably right,” Embiid said from the podium, drawing laughs from the room. “But we got bigger goals.”

Those bigger goals, of course, are advancing past the second round of the playoffs, something Embiid has never done in his NBA career and something that will all but certainly require beating Boston four out of seven games next month.

That is why Embiid was focused on the way Philadelphia nearly allowed Boston to pull off what would have been an utterly unbelievable comeback from down seven points with less than 10 seconds to go — one that was a Jayson Tatum jumper at the buzzer away from sending the game to overtime.

“We understand we got a chance,” Embiid said, “but it’s not gonna be easy. Tonight, for me, was kind of disappointing because we found so many ways to lose the game and that’s on all of us.

“I’m part of it. I could’ve been better. You know, I had a couple of dumb plays. … I could’ve been better and we could’ve been better as a team. Like I said, we got bigger goals in mind, but we got to be better than that.”

Even beyond the late-game collapse, there were plenty of issues for the 76ers. Tyrese Maxey‘s season-long struggles against Boston continued, as he finished the game 2-for-8 from the field with one turnover compared to four assists, and is now 9-for-32 across his last three games against the Celtics.

As a team, 76ers not named Embiid shot a combined 19-for-53 (35.8%) — a number that drops down to 15-for-49 (30.6% ) when Tucker’s 4-for-5 performance is removed from the equation.

The 76ers allowed Boston to get 13 offensive rebounds — which resulted in 13 more shots — and couldn’t create any separation in a game Brown and Williams both missed.

Ultimately, though, it didn’t matter, thanks to an iconic performance from Embiid. And, as he and the 76ers look ahead to what feels like an inevitable showdown in the playoffs, the ugly nature of the win didn’t take away the satisfaction of avoiding a season sweep at the hands of one of Philadelphia’s biggest rivals.

“I mean we struggled this year against them, obviously being down 0-3,” Embiid said. “So tonight was much needed. A win is a win. It doesn’t matter what we did wrong out there. You know, like I said, we found ways to basically lose that game but a win is a win — especially going into the playoffs. And if they end up with the No. 2 seed we might see them in the second round, if we make it there.

“You got to be ready for every scenario. Just wanted to see where we’re at, where I’m at, and where we are as a team. I think you know, if we could correct a lot of the mistakes that we made, we got a pretty good chance.”

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