Philadelphia’s 103-101 win over Boston was one to file away in the short-term memory banks for years to come. The Sixers finally beat the hated rival Celtics for the first time in four tries this season. Years from now, we won’t remember that Boston was down a couple key starters, but we will recall the performance for the ages from Joel Embiid, who exploded for 52 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, and two blocks, shooting 20-of-25 from the field and 12-of-13 from the foul line. Embiid joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only Sixer to record at least 50 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists twice in a season, as well as being the only players in NBA history to hit those numbers on 80 percent-or-better shooting.
It was about as much of a one-man show as a basketball game can get. Outside of a solid game from James Harden, a couple shots from Jalen McDaniels, and three great minutes from P.J. Tucker, the rest of the Sixers roster was either invisible or actively hurting the team. It didn’t matter, however, as Embiid made one extremely difficult midrange shot after another, willing his team to victory by being far and away the best player on both ends of the court.
Embiid’s night was all the sweeter for coming in what may be the regulars’ last game of significance this regular season, and with the MVP race drawing to a close. While there are those who have made it clear they’re supporting Embiid, Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, or Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, some voters remained undecided. Those individuals might have viewed Tuesday night as one last chance for Joel to make a case for himself against a marquee opponent, particularly after he and the Sixers lost to Milwaukee over the weekend, and Embiid sat out last week’s game in Denver due to calf soreness. Well, for the remaining fence sitters, Tuesday night was Embiid crashing through the fence Kool-Aid Man-style and shouting, “You’re on my side of the yard now!”
After what we just saw from Embiid against the Celtics, and perhaps assisted by Nikola Jokic being a minus-21 in Denver’s loss to Houston last night, the MVP now appears to be decided. The online sportsbooks have shifted heavily in Embiid’s favor; DraftKings has him at minus-500 to win the award, as of this writing. Head coach Doc Rivers also has thoughts on the matter:
“There’s so many things that we did wrong, but what we did right was Joel Embiid. The MVP race is over. Tonight, we couldn’t make shots. … The man just scored half our points in an NBA game. And I’m biased, but the MVP race is over.”
Asked about the MVP race being over, Joel once again demurred to having bigger goals on his mind:
“I don’t know. They’re probably right, but we’ve got bigger goals. [People laugh, Embiid smiles.] Yeah, like I said, they’re probably right, but we’ve got bigger goals in mind. We understand we’ve got a chance, but it’s not going to be easy. Tonight, for me it was kind of disappointing, because we found so many ways to (almost) lose the game tonight. And that’s on all of us. I’m part of it; could have been better. I had a couple of dumb plays over-helping and giving up two threes in the corner; the offensive foul on the flop; and another turnover. So I could’ve been better and we could’ve been better as a team. Like I said, we’ve got bigger goals in mind, but we’ve got to be better than that.”
Maybe you don’t care about Embiid winning MVP and only hunger for that long-awaited championship. I probably can’t change your mind, but I’ll try anyway. I’d love to be wrong, but I doubt the Sixers are winning the title this year. But Joel Embiid is the defining player of this generation of Philadelphia basketball and one of the greatest we’ll ever see across our lifetimes. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an MVP award to point to years from now and say, “See, everyone else agreed with what I knew in my heart to be true,” as you settle back to watch another game in your VR goggles? It’s not a championship, but it’s still something pretty special.
So with the playoffs right around the corner, with what will likely feature a first-round series before stress-inducing than necessary before the Sixers try once more to finally send the Celtics home for the summer, let’s take a beat and appreciate what we just saw and what we have been seeing since last fall. It was a historic night from a historic player. Joel Embiid, NBA MVP. It just sounds right.