Joel Embiid needed just 25 field goal attempts on Tuesday night for the fifth 50-point game of his career.
In a performance that could only enhance his already strong MVP status, Embiid poured in 52 points on 20-for-25 shooting in the Sixers’ 103-101 win over the Celtics at Wells Fargo Center. Embiid also recorded 13 rebounds, six assists and two blocks.
James Harden scored 20 points and had 10 assists.
Jason Tatum missed the base jump on Boston’s final possession. He was the Celtics’ No. 2 leading scorer with 19 points on 7-for-20 shooting. Derrick White had 26.
It was the Sixers’ 52nd win with three games left in the regular season. He clinched the top three seed in the Eastern Conference.
On the first night of a back-to-back Celtics game, Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams III, Peyton Pritchard, and Danilo Gallinari were all out with injuries.
The Sixers will play their final home game of the regular season on Thursday night against the Heat. Here are notes on Tuesday’s win and Embiid’s thrilling outing:
Embiid owns the first
The Celtics opened with Grant Williams on Embiid and the Sixers were happy to target that game, feeding their All-Star center more often than not at the elbow.
Embiid was sharp early on, showing a keen sense of just when the assist defenders were about to swarm. He was fouled on a turnaround jump, set up another, and also scored on Williams at the post. With a clever move and a throw, Embiid gave the Sixers a 12-5 lead. He scored 18 of the Sixers’ 28 points in the first quarter, hitting 6 of 7 field goals and 6 of 7 free throws. Embiid also delivered an impressive dish to Jalen McDaniels for the third corner that showcased his body control and range of options even when he’s driving hard on downhills or in the middle of a move.
Unlike Sunday night in Milwaukee, the Sixers’ opponent had a cold start; Boston started 1-for-9 from the field and 0-for-5 from three-point range. However, the Sixers eventually paid for some defensive errors and the Celtics looked more of a threat in the transition. They took a 19-18 advantage in Malcolm Brogdon’s three draws.
In the end, the Sixers didn’t let Embiid’s exceptional 12 minutes go to waste. Boston struggled to score in a lineup with Tatum and four players from the second unit, and Embiid made a lopsided, one-pointer and the Sixers led by six points after the period.
No crime support
Almost everything a Sixers offense ran through Harden and Embiid in the first half.
They combined to score 39 of their 53 points going into the break, as well as seven of their nine assists.
The supporting cast of The Sixers had a shakier start. The Celtics scored their first seven points of the second quarter, capitalizing on a few Harden missed points. Paul Reed’s hustle was again positive, though he squandered the opportunity to move on. However, the Sixers got five points after Reed’s offensive tackle, and the 23-year-old impressively dismissed the Brogdon players. With Reed on the ground, there’s far less reason to worry about a defensive approach switching everything up than with the usual backup big man.
Thérèse Maxi started the evening wearing a red headband, though he soon ditched it. The new look did not improve Maxi’s fortunes against Boston. A first inning 1-for-6 dropped Maxey to an 8-for-his last 30 from the floor against the Celtics. Early in the third quarter, Maxie Pump faked a three and then whistled for an offensive foul in his attempt to get a good look at the dribble.
Within the first six minutes of the third, Tobias Harris had three misses and two layups. No matter the opponent, it’s clearly important in the playoffs for the Sixers that Harris not hesitate to take open three-point shots and crack when defenses force the ball out of the hands of their star players.
Embiid had one answer after another as Boston came close to passing the Sixers for third. His mid-range jumpers were cash and he was constantly choosing the right positions to shoot. However, it is very difficult to build meaningful leadership when almost everyone is not good enough. George Niang got a good shot after a double team on Embiid late in the third period, but missed it to go down to 0-for-3 from the ground. DeAnthony Melton went 0 for 4.
Despite all that, sometimes Embiid’s mere presence in court is enough. After the Celtics cut their deficit to 68-67, Embiid drove his way to a fierce championship over Luke Cornette. A Jalen McDaniels block and a Danuel House Jr stop at the end of the quarter on Brogdon helped the Sixers maintain their lead entering the fourth.
The Sixers advantage did not last long.
Once again, the Sixers’ lineup of Harden and four bench players was a difficult period. Boston held a 77-74 advantage on triples from White and Brogdon, prompting Sixers head coach Doc Rivers to call a timeout.
Harris called in Niang’s and McDaniels’ place after a timeout of three, but the Sixers still relied heavily on Embiid’s greatness for the win. They finished on poor possession as Harden faced a double team and White fouled his birdie as the shot clock expired.
Embiid came back and quickly sank two jumpers, tying the score at 81 each. Even in high contention, he was truly automatic around the foul line.
While Embiid seemed to be able to do whatever he wanted, it was inevitable that he would sometimes need to give up the ball. When he did, PJ Tucker delivered it.
Tucker cleared two clutch sets from the left corner and one from the right. Until Friday’s win over the Raptors, Tucker had never hit more than two goals in one game all season. He has now done so in back-to-back home games. Each one was phenomenal on Tuesday night in ensuring that Embiid’s stunning performance came out in victory.
The Sixers were too far to fault in the closing seconds. After Tucker conceded three to White, Embiid was called for an offensive foul on the ensuing inside play. The Sixers were relieved to make it to the finish line.
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