Joel Embiid Did the Thing
The Sixers have problems. But Embiid is perfect.
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Last night was his last chance to get it done. Maybe Joel Embiid could've sleepwalked to the MVP while going 0-3 in his final marquee matchups against the Nuggets, Bucks and Celtics. But with Giannis Antetokounmpo showing some late life for the presumptive one seed and Nikola Jokic.... well, definitely not showing some late life, but still being MVP voters' go-to Golden Ox-Man... there was no way he should've chanced it. Jo had to show out in one of those three games to ensure the trophy would finally be his.
Then he missed the game last Monday in Denver. Then he underwhelmed in a bad loss in Milwaukee on Sunday. And suddenly last night's game against Boston was Embiid's final opportunity to shut the debate down for good, to knock the mics out of the hands of anyone with a platform still preaching Jokic, Giannis, Tatum or I dunno Lu friggin' Dort as the year's Prince Who Was Promised. After that, he'd be leaving the discussion in the hands of fate -- which historically has never been a particularly good idea as far as the Sixers are concerned. No. He had to do it last night.
And he did it. With one last game under the season's brightest lights and his team flailing all around him, Joel Embiid balled out to the tune of 52-13-6 -- with awesome defense and, uh, only one or two potentially fatal late-game fried-brain catastrophes. We needed a signature game from Embiid, and we got the best game of his entire goddamn career. And now there'll be no threepeat in Denver, nor will Philly be one year away from becoming the '90s Buffalo Bills of the Michael Jordan Trophy. At very long last, everyone from Draft Kings to John Hollinger agrees: Joel Embiid is going to be your 2022-23 NBA Most Valuable Player.
I can already feel us starting to take this kind of performance from Joel Embiid for granted -- it's hard not to when he makes it look so easy, so simple -- and I'm not sure where to even start trying to put this game in proper context. I guess the best way to talk about it is to say that the story of Embiid vs. the Celtics in his career has, to now, been one of "Yeah, but..." Yeah, he scored 30 against Boston, but he needed 28 shots to do it. Yeah, he scored efficiently against Boston, but he had six turnovers and only two assists. Yeah, he was all-around great on offense against Boston, but he just got sloppy on defense too many times. Yeah, he was awesome on both sides of the ball against Boston, but he made a couple terrible plays late in crucial possessions. Yeah, he was dominant in every facet of the game against Boston, and even came through in the clutch when called on to do so... but the Sixers still lost the game anyway.
That last one basically takes us up to date with Jo and the C's, since that was the story of his matchup with Boston in February -- 41-12-5 on good shooting, with three blocks and just three turnovers, and some huge buckets and free throws down the stretch... but all undone by a game-winning Jayson Tatum three with seconds to go. And it looked like we might have gotten the same thing last night, as the Sixers couldn't help giving the game away during Joel's bench minutes, and it seemed highly uncertain he would be able to carry the team over the finish line with basically the entire rest of the roster demanding piggyback rides. But he drained bucket after bucket in the fourth, dunked home the basket to give him 50, and found P.J. Tucker -- yes, that P.J. Tucker, more on him in a sec -- in the corner for three late-quarter triples that basically made the difference in this one. He fucking slammed the door on Boston, leaving no doubt who'd be walking away with the win tonight, and with the MVP award in a month or two's time.
(Then he and the rest of the team tried to open it again. I certainly don't want to recount a play-by-play of the slasher flick that was the final 15 seconds of this game -- when Jo and the Sixers nearly gave away everything they'd worked so hard to secure in this one, escaped from the brink of oblivion, and then tried to give it away a second time. I am grateful they did not succeed in ruining this magical evening for Embiid and for the rest of us, and this will be the last time we will be talking about it: As of now, Sixers Canon clearly states that Embiid and Tucker put the nail in the coffin of this one with about 50 seconds to go, and records/memories of what happened after that are fuzzy at best.)
So all right, a quick minute for P.J. here. He was miserable in the first 44 minutes of this game. Moving screens, blown communications on switches, one possession where he got the ball with four seconds left on the clock, dribbled needlessly to nowhere, then airballed a 10-footer as the clock expired. He was not particularly helpful on offense or defense, and he had as many fouls as he had points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks combined (four) going into the game's final minutes. I tweeted something salty about him, and he proceeded to immediately save the day with three game-changing corner triples. Kudos to Embiid to get him those wide open shots -- and still have faith in him to hit them despite all recent evidence to the contrary -- and good on ya P.J. for actually making them. I'm sure that as I write this, Spike is handing me my ass live on the Ricky for tweeting shit about P.J. when he ended up coming through again in the clutch, and I'm fine with that; dunking is a dish best served cold and I will happily serve up frozen take after frozen take for P.J./Spike to slam back down on my big fat stupid face if it means him making plays like that when we need them most. (Plus if he hadn't played like dogshit for the first 43 minutes we probably wouldn't have needed him to bail us out in the last five.)
And that's it. Joel Embiid is your MVP, and the Sixers are your Eastern Conference three seed. (They can still technically get to two if they win out and Boston loses out, but... no.) With Embiid hitting officially his 65-game benchmark for the second straight year with his appearance last night, there's basically no reason to even play him the rest of the way. The Bucks and Nuggets don't have much to play for either, and there's no more major showdowns left on the schedule that could really swing award-season momentum in a meaningful way -- not like this one, certainly. The only quasi-important decision that might be left for the Sixers to make before their regular season wraps is whether they want to play anybody at all in Game 82 against Brooklyn, when a Brooklyn win in that one might be needed to ensure we face the Nets and not the Heat in the first round's three-six matchup.
Now, once you get past all this, the question lingers: Do we actually have a chance to beat Boston in the second round? And while you certainly have to like the W last night more than any of the three L's they'd previously taken against Boston this season, I don't think you look at the game as being exceptionally encouraging for their prospects in that best-of-seven series. They got a perfect Embiid performance -- an A++ supplemented with Tracy Flick levels of unnecessary extra-credit work -- and they finally got a Boston game where they didn't make every fucking shot (just 15-45 from three, figures that looked even worse before the final-minutes craziness). And they still needed until the last minute to put this one away, and the putting didn't even take the first two times. James Harden got his 20 and 10 and was basically good enough, but Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey were invisible on offense, De'Anthony Melton and George Niang gave us nothing like their names were Dua and Lipa, and even beautiful beautiful BBall Paul couldn't save the second unit from getting blitzed with Embiid riding the pine. (Not to mention that Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams III were DNPs for the Celtics -- though not like being down a key player or two has ever hurt Boston even a little bit against us in the past.)
But you know what? That's fine. All of it. Last night's game was a moment for celebration, even if you left it less confident about the Sixers' chances against Boston in the playoffs than you were going in. That's because the second round of the playoffs is still four weeks away, and Embiid's last chance to snatch the MVP was last night -- and as I wrote about last week, I was starting to believe more strongly than ever that he needed to slay that first dragon before he could give much consideration to chopping down the second one. Losing MVP in so-close fashion for a third straight year would have weighed on him, and continued to weigh on him, through the playoffs, through next season, maybe through the rest of his career. He needed to be done with this. We needed to be done with this. Hell, Nikola Jokic needed him to be done with this, as evidenced by his "you know what? all yours" eight-turnover performance last night in a blowout loss to the Rockets. It just had to happen. It just had to happen right now.
And remarkably, it did happen. After so many years of disappointments major and minor, Joel Embiid got it done -- without qualification, reservation or hesitation. And now he can say with an open heart and a full chest that he is in fact the best player in the league this season, good enough to beat the Boston Celtics basically all by his lonesome, good enough to be the player that swings a matchup that should otherwise never be swung. It's not the final goal for Joel, but it's a step that he needed to take first before getting anywhere near the top of that mountain — one he might not have gotten away with skipping. No matter what happens from here, this is a defining moment for Joel Embiid, for The Process, for the Sixers and for us, who watched nearly every second he's played in the six and a half years since the first opening tip he took against Oklahoma City in Oct. 2016. After all that time, Joel Embiid finally did the damn thing. Now onto the next thing.