PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid pretty much won a game for the 76ers all by himself. For coach Doc Rivers, yes, the 76ers got a needed win against a potential playoff foe, but Embiid might have won himself so much more.
“The MVP race is over,” Rivers said.
Embiid strengthened his bid for the award with 52 points and 13 rebounds, and the NBA scoring leader carried Philadelphia to a 103-101 win over the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night.
In a game with a playoff vibe, this one came down to the end, as Jayson Tatum’s tying jumper fell short at the horn.
P.J. Tucker gave Embiid and the Sixers the help they needed when he made three late 3-pointers that turned a one-point deficit into a 101-95 lead. Derrick White buried a 3 with 2 seconds left that pulled Boston to 103-101 and hushed a crowd that had just bellowed “MVP! MVP!” chants.
Embiid was whistled for an offensive foul, the latest in a string of late-game breakdowns that almost gave away the game.
“We were trying to give them the game back. We really tried,” Rivers said.
But they hung on and beat the Celtics for the first time in four tries this season. They can thank the All-Star center that punctuated the victory with a vicious two-handed slam late in the game that sent the crowd into a frenzy.
Embiid made 20 of 25 shots from the floor and 12 of 13 free throws en route to his ninth game of the season with at least 40 points and 10 rebounds. Embiid scored 50 points for the third time this season.
“When he gets it going like that, no one can stop him,” Tucker said.
James Harden had 20 points and 10 assists.
White scored 26 points and Tatum had 19. The Celtics fell to 9-4 this season without Jaylen Brown, the team’s second-leading scorer who got the night off with a back injury.
“Our offense, we just weren’t elite tonight,” coach Joe Mazzulla said. “When your offense isn’t elite, it puts pressure on your defense against great, great players like tonight.”
Embiid responded to the chants that rained down on him by playing early like a one-person show. Embiid got the 50-point effort going from the jump and made 6 of 7 from the floor and 6 of 7 from the free throw line for 18 points in the first quarter. The rest of the team missed 8 of 12 shots and did not attempt a free throw.
As the season winds down, the same pressing question looms for the Sixers just as it did at the start of the season: Who will step up and join Embiid and Harden as consistent playoff performers?
Without the help needed from Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris and some production off the bench, the Sixers could be doomed to yet another 50-win, second-round exit this season. The Sixers haven’t advanced to the Eastern Conference finals since 2001 and another early flameout this season could lead to an offseason of upheaval in Philly.
Not if Embiid can help it.
The Celtics are trying to wrest the No. 1 seed in the East from Milwaukee while the 76ers are pretty much locked in for the third seed.
RIVALRY GAME? RIVALRY GAME!
Mazzulla brushed aside a suggestion the 76ers were a rivalry game.
“It’s not a rivalry game for me in the sense of, I just want to win,” Mazzulla said.
Oh. Well, in his defense, it’s his rookie year on the bench. Rivers had to learn early in his tenure when he coached Boston how much the game meant to each city. Rivers said after one early loss in Philly, he gave broadcaster Tom Heinsohn a ride from the airport. The late Celtics great had some stern advice for Rivers.
“Don’t ever lose to Philly again,” Rivers said with a laugh. “He never said anything like it to me. I was new to it. It wasn’t a rivalry for me at the time. I kind of got the message that these two cities like beating each other.”
Celtics: Hit 15 3-pointers.
76ers: Embiid’s 24 points in the first half gave him 2,134 on the season, the most for an NBA center since Shaquille O’Neal scored 2,344 for the Lakers in 1999-2000.
Celtics: Host Toronto on Wednesday.
76ers: Play their home finale Thursday against Miami.
AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports