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April 05, 2023

The Sixers think the MVP race is over, but bigger goals are on Joel Embiid's mind

Joel Embiid's evolution was all the difference in preventing another frustrating Sixers loss to Boston.

If you looked at most of the conditions for Tuesday's Sixers-Celtics game, it seems no different than any number of losses Philadelphia has suffered at the hands of their Atlantic Division rival over the years. Boston was undermanned, on the road, had wrapped up the season series already, and still managed to hang around long enough to scare the bejeezus out of every Sixers fan in the world. In many ways, winning that game by two points felt worse than if the Sixers had simply punted the game.

The difference between that game and so many others over the years, put simply, is Joel Embiid. 

"There's so many things that we did wrong, but what we did right was Joel Embiid," Doc Rivers said Tuesday. "The MVP race is over, really. Tonight, we couldn't make shots, we had guys with open shots, the man just scored half our points in an NBA game. And I'm biased, but the MVP race is over."

No team has bothered Embiid quite like the Celtics have over the course of his career, and no player has bothered Embiid more than Al Horford, including when he spent a season alongside him as a teammate. The proof of Embiid's evolution is in the seasonlong numbers against the Celtics — even with a clunker to open the year, Embiid averaged a whopping 36.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game against the Celtics this season, shooting a preposterous 61.2 percent from the field. To put it into perspective, that's an improvement over his career Celtics numbers by about nine points per game while shooting 12.5 percent better from the field. The last two matchups on Philadelphia's home floor have featured two of the most dominant individual performances of his career, with Embiid carving up a top-five defense in the league as if it was not there.

It wasn't as though the Celtics just simply let him destroy them. Missing starting big Robert Williams III for this meeting, the Celtics tried a variety of methods to slow down Embiid. Their night began with a smaller Grant Williams as the primary defender, with Al Horford looming as a roamer from the corner. Nine different Boston defenders guarded an Embiid shot between the opening tip and the end of the game. Five went 0/night at preventing an Embiid make. 

The absolute best they had to offer was Horford, who Embiid shot five of seven against while dishing out three of his six assists and turning the ball over just once. 24 players in the NBA have at least 10 shot attempts while guarded by Horford this year, the list filled with glossy names like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, and so on. Embiid shot the second-highest percentage (61.9 percent) of that group, and more than doubled the volume of the player (Myles Turner) sitting in first.

It feels fair to say, then, that Embiid is and will be the best player in a future playoff series against Boston. The Sixers were cautious to note that a looming second-round matchup with Boston was too far ahead to think about, noting that they were not done with the regular season, let alone the first-round series they'd have to get through against Brooklyn or Miami to make that happen. But given a chance to stump for MVP one last time, having made his case as clear as ever, Embiid's postgame message centered on what Philly had done wrong at the end of the game.

"They're probably right," Embiid said when told about Rivers and his teammates endorsing his MVP case, "but we got bigger goals in mind. We understand we got a chance, but it's not going to be easy. Tonight for me was kind of disappointing, we found so many ways to try to lose a game tonight. That's on all of us, I'm part of it, could have been better, I had a couple of dumb plays overhelping and giving up two threes in the corner. The offensive foul on the flop, and another turnover. I could have been better, and we could have been better as a team. We've got big goals in mind, we've got to be better than that."

Honest self-assessment is the only way forward — self-scouting his weaknesses and the league's approach to defending him is how Embiid has arrived at this moment, on the verge of becoming the first back-to-back scoring champion at the center position since Bob McAdoo in the mid-70s. For years, Embiid battled critics who insisted that he spent too much time jump-shooting and not enough time on the block. Borrowing from the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, Embiid has turned the midrange jumper into his bread and butter, destroying from the elbows from a spot where he sees the floor better than ever.

In some ways, Embiid's passing late in the game was more important and more impressive than the barrage of jumpers he dropped on the Celtics. Sixers vs. Celtics have been littered with turnovers in the recent past, with Boston constantly hitting him with doubles from his blindside (and really, all over the floor) as he tried to clear space against Horford. Extra help remains an integral part of the game plan for Boston. But it is the big man's belief that moving his primary base of operations has avoided many of the pitfalls from the past.

"Better vision, better passing options, and that's what it comes down to," Embiid said. "It gives me a lot of space and [it's] so much harder to double there. In the post, you get doubled in the post you don't have a lot of passing options and you don't have great vision and you've got to throw the ball through hands. Getting the ball at the nail and getting doubled, you've got the vision of everything. Everything is wide open as long as we've got the right spacing and everybody is flat. I can see everything, and you can make plays from the left side and right side, just because you're in the middle of the floor."

P.J. Tucker was the primary beneficiary of Boston's "stop Embiid at all costs" approach late in the game, and for perhaps the first time since putting on the uniform, the veteran forward had his moment, swinging the game with three consecutive makes from deep in crunch time. 

For those of us on the outside, it was a reminder that Tucker has been on a lot of winning teams and has come through in big spots by being able to set aside the past and move on to the next challenge, whether that means a rough game, a rough quarter, or a rough possession early in a contest. But Embiid, who was a driving force in Tucker coming to Philadelphia, made sure to use his pulpit to praise Tucker's season-long contributions.

"He's been great the whole season," Embiid said. "He's not going to score a lot of points, if any, but just his presence on the floor, the little stuff that he does, offensive rebounding, guarding the other team's best player, just his activity, communication. You can't judge players off of scoring. I know in this league people don't care about offense anymore, it's all about offense, how many points you score, but offense is not all that matters."

It has all come together for Embiid in the seventh and best season of his career — he is unguardable because he has molded himself into one of the great midrange assassins of all-time, but also because he has learned to trust in others. The big man who never loved the idea of running pick-and-rolls has been part of the most dominant pick-and-roll partnership in the league. Embiid has been vocal in the locker room and in front of the cameras about the supporting cast needing to let it fly, and in that way, he has become the guy Jimmy Butler was for him early in his career, barking at teammates to shoot more when the opportunities come their way.

All of this may be for naught in the end, as a team performance like Tuesday's is not going to be enough to get it done against the fully-healthy Celtics in the playoffs, not to mention the Bucks and whoever manages to squeak through the west. Having the best player in the world can only take you so far if the supporting casts don't even out, as Wilt Chamberlain learned the hard way in this very rivalry.

But if ever there was a moment for Philadelphia to break through, now is the time. And that says everything about No. 21 in the middle of the floor, juking and jumping and jousting his way to the very top of the league. 

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