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April 04, 2023

Instant observations: Embiid's 52 points carry Sixers to win over Celtics

Joel Embiid dropped 52 points and boosted his NBA MVP campaign in the Sixers' win over the Celtics.

Joel Embiid scored 52 points in what felt like his last push for NBA MVP, holding off the Celtics in a 103-101 barnburner. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Do you think Joel Embiid was aware this was his last big opportunity to audition for the MVP award? He sure had the look of a guy who wanted to make one last pitch to the voters around the league, and the demeanor of a player who wanted to make sure his team got at least one victory over the Celtics this season. Whether the Celtics were at full strength or not, he was going to turn it up and let the chips fall where they may.

Rather than using old nemesis Al Horford against Embiid to start the game, the Celtics decided to use Grant Williams on the big man with Horford roaming off P.J. Tucker in the corner, ostensibly to give Williams extra help around the rim. In practice, though, that was a disaster for the Celtics. Williams had absolutely no hope of defending Embiid, who hit him with every move in the book — pull-up jumpers, speed drives to the basket, even an homage to Hakeem Olajuwon with a pseudo-Dream Shake that freed him for an open layup.

By the time the first quarter was over, Embiid had piled up 18 points and seven rebounds. I would imagine it was at that point that Boston thought it was time to throw the entire gameplan out.

Things got a little bit tougher in the second quarter, with Embiid forced to battle a bigger, savvier Horford in order to get his points. But the principles that carried him in the previous meeting between the two teams held up in this one – Embiid often played quick enough that it didn't matter who was defending him on the initial catch, as he was either rising up to shoot or making a dribble move to the basket before they could invade his space. 

All night long, the Celtics cycled through matchups and just prayed variety would be enough to carry them. Embiid had an answer for just about all of them. His line probably undersells how dominant he was in this game — the moment Embiid hit the bench, the Sixers looked like a group of players who had never played basketball together before, burning down the clock to settle for contested jumpers.

As his midrange mastery has progressed over the last few years, games like these have been more common for Embiid, with the jumper stuck on automatic. It has to be an absolutely helpless feeling trying to defend this guy when he has the shot working like this because if you sell out to contest the jumper and get into his chest, he's either going by you or drawing a foul. But the deeper they got into this game, the less he needed to rely on anything except for that picturesque jumper. They just kept throwing Embiid the ball around the elbows, and the big dude kept cashing out.

The optimist's case for the Sixers over the Celtics in a seven-game series rests on Joel Embiid being by far the best player in that series. I don't think we need to draw many (if any) conclusions from this game, given the Celtics' absence and general give-a-damn level during the game, but I think you can at least feel confident that Embiid is going to have the upper hand in this matchup.

• If you care about the MVP race, I think this game presents Embiid's case about as clear as a single game could. He is a dominant force who has pulled this team out of the fire time and time again.  Anything less than what he offered, and they are dead in the water. The whole team owes him a nice dinner after that one.

• P.J. Tucker hitting three straight threes down the stretch to push this game over the top for Philly is the only positive outside of Embiid in this game. Tucker celebrating the first one after stinking it up the rest of the game was genuinely hilarious. 

Big picture, we can go through P.J. Tucker's historical numbers and you can hope/pray that he manages to dig deeper for a better version of himself in the playoffs. I don't see a guy that teams are going to pay attention to when it matters, but a moment like this is what suggests otherwise — deep into a season where he has had nothing, Tucker found something in the moment that really counted.

The Bad

• Tyrese Maxey being as good as he is against the Bucks and as bad as he is against the Celtics is pretty confounding. I'm not sure I can pinpoint a reason for it, as the relative challenges in both matchups are pretty similar. 

Blame it on (briefly) switching to a headband if you want — why mess with the mojo? — but Maxey struggled to find the touch all night long. When Maxey goes through struggles finishing inside the arc, doubt seems to creep into his game everywhere else, and shot attempts that would be no-brainers on a good night are turned down in service of much more difficult runners and floaters. The residue of his past life/skill set are still there, with Maxey sometimes carrying himself more like a non-shooter at times. He is one of the best shooters in the league this season, full stop, and should always carry himself like it.

If you're looking for someone to credit for Maxey's woes, Boston's Derrick White is the first place to look. He has been one of the Celtics' best players all season long (and I would argue deserves to start/close games) and seemed to live in Maxey's head throughout the game. White is big enough to take advantage of Maxey a bit on the defensive end, and he can hold up against Maxey in single coverage, beating him to spots and walling him off once Maxey meets him there. 

Hell, Maxey struggled to win matchups that are almost designed for him to score out of. He missed a layup at the rim on a possession where he was guarded by Mike Muscala, which is not exactly a sentence I thought I'd be typing coming into the night.

Maxey was so bad in this game he couldn't execute a simple end-of-game inbounds play, nearly turning it over on one backcourt pass to Harden and then falling out of bounds with the ball in his hands at the 15-second mark. Maybe the bad performances against this team are coincidences and he'll come through in the playoffs, but this was ugly. His stupid foul in the final 10 seconds of the game opened the door for Boston to try to scrape by in the final five seconds. This is probably the worst game he has played as a professional basketball player.

They need to figure out a way to get more from him in this matchup, and while we can think long and hard about what they can do to position him better, it all starts with him. 

• Tobias Harris was borderline point-shaving at the start of the second half. I admire his aggression with his touches and shot opportunities limited in this game, but there were several moments in the second quarter where he just plowed his way into a thicket of Celtics with no chance to score the ball. The shot went up anyway, obviously, but to no avail.

The thing that really bothers me with Harris, though, is the rebounding (or lack thereof). There are so many offensive rebounds that float into his airspace that he just expects to fall into his hands with guys flying around him. 

• Here is the Georges Niang flowchart for the playoffs — if he is making shots, roll the dice and think about playing him. If he is not, he should not see the floor in the second half of a game. Play Danuel House Jr., play Shake Milton, play whoever, but you can't leave Niang out there to offer nothing on both ends of the floor.

And by the way, that Paul Reed-Jaden McDaniels-House combo has looked pretty good in limited minutes on the bench lately. I get that they're chaotic, and that the bench got pasted across the board on Tuesday night, but why not turn to it here?

• The numbers suggest this was a pretty good game for James Harden, and he added just enough shotmaking in this game for the Sixers to hang in despite getting disaster class efforts from the rest of the team. But I don't think he was anything special, and I saw some worrying trends that I don't want to see pop up in the playoffs.

If the choice is between James Harden trying to force something up late in the clock and P.J. Tucker recieving a pass at the dunker spot with no options to pass to, I am going to take Harden shooting a crazy shot every day of the week.

• "The whole team stunk except for Embiid" would have been a good replacement for this entire section. 

The Ugly

• I have firmly been in the camp that this was a game the Sixers needed to win just to shake off the feeling of dread that a season sweep would have provided. That said, I'm sure the Sixers aren't exactly taking much pride/hope out of struggling to beat a version of the Celtics without two of their starters, and it's not exactly a momentum-boosting victory heading into the playoffs. Take what you can get, obviously, but nobody is throwing a parade over this one. In fact, you could argue they feel worse now.

(If the Celtics played it safe with Jaylen Brown just to make sure the win was less satisfying, it's a bit of gamesmanship I respect.)

• That last 30 seconds is the most embarrassing display of basketball the Sixers have offered since Game 5 of the Hawks series.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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