PHILADELPHIA -- With his dominant 52-point, 13-rebound performance in Philadelphia's 103-101 win over the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night, 76ers center Joel Embiid might have locked up the 2023 NBA MVP Award. His coach thinks so, at least.
"The MVP race is over," Doc Rivers said after the game. "Really. Like tonight, we couldn't make shots... The man just scored half of our points in an NBA game. And I'm biased, but the MVP race is over."
Rivers is likely correct, as no player from across the league's landscape has been as downright dominant as Embiid this season. But, while the game served as an exclamation point to Embiid's season-long case, it also raised a couple of legitimate concerns regarding Philadelphia's upcoming playoff push.
The way things have shaken out, it looks like the Celtics will finish at No. 2 in the Eastern Conference standings, while the Sixers will land at No. 3. This means that the two teams will likely meet in the conference semifinals if both are able to dispatch their first round opponents. Winning that series will be a tall task for Philly.
The Celtics have had the Sixers' number in recent playoff series. The two teams have met twice in the postseason over the past handful of years, and Boston boasts an 8-1 overall record in those games. They bested the Sixers in five games in the second round back in 2018 and swept them in the first round in the Orlando bubble in 2020.
While I don't take too much from these past matchups since both teams look a whole lot different this time around, their recent shared history is still worth noting for context. The Celtics have represented a mountain that the Sixers must climb in order to reach the promised land throughout the Embiid era, and that remains the case.
Prior to Tuesday night, the Celtics were 3-0 against the Sixers this season. When they dropped the fourth and final meeting, it was by just two, and only after Embiid turned in one of the greatest performances of his career. Rivers mentioned it -- Embiid scored more than half of Philadelphia's points in the game. That's absurd, and the Sixers needed every single one of Embiid's baskets in order to narrowly escape with a victory at home.
While it was an amazing individual performance that inspired an electric atmosphere inside the Wells Fargo Center, it doesn't exactly inspire confidence when it comes to Philadelphia's prospects in a best-of-seven series against Boston. Embiid is performing at an unparalleled level this season, and while he may be capable of dropping nearly 50 points per performance over the course of a series, that's simply too big of an ask -- and not necessarily a formula for success.
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A problem that has plagued the Sixers throughout Embiid's time with the team reared its ugly head against the Celtics. In the game, Embiid played 39 minutes. During that time, the Sixers outscored the Celtics by 17 points. During the nine minutes he rested on the bench, the Sixers were outscored by 15. They consistently collapse when Embiid is off of the floor, and while his playing time is sure to increase during the playoffs, he's still going to need some rest. The complexion of a game -- or series -- can be altered very quickly, and the Sixers have provided little reason to feel confident in the non-Embiid minutes.
Plus, you also have to keep in mind that the Sixers were at full strength against the Celtics on Tuesday night, while Boston was missing two key contributors in Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams. Brown is Boston's second-best player, while Williams is the team's top rim protector, and a guy that they can use on Embiid.
No one can stop Embiid, but Williams' size and length could make things more difficult on him than they were on Tuesday night when he was guarded by the likes of Grant Williams, Luke Kornet and Blake Griffin. Had the Celtics had Brown and/or Williams in the game, perhaps the outcome would have been different.
The 76ers are a very good basketball team, and they have the most dominant player in the league currently in Embiid. However, if they end up facing Boston in the second round, they'll have their hands full with a deep, versatile Celtics squad, and their margin for error will be razor-thin. That's not to say they can't win the series, but they'll need Embiid to be consistently otherworldly like he was on Tuesday night in order to do so.