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Joel Embiid Made His Case Again

Joel Embiid after scoring 52 points
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

There are any number of ways to make an MVP argument. Deploy as many as necessary, but don't expect them all to land quite the same. Mewling to Shams Charania that nobody likes you and nobody should expect anything of you, in an article published on the morning of a DNP in Denver? That is definitely one option. A more persuasive option is logging 52 points (on 20-of-25 shooting), 13 rebounds, six assists, and two blocks against a longtime conference rival. That outrageous feat belonged to Joel Embiid on Tuesday night, as he carried the Sixers to a 103-101 win over the Celtics, with one of the best individual performances of the regular season—and the perfect note to go out on, should he rest these last three games against low-end playoff stragglers.

Because Embiid is seven feet tall, he can hoist a jump shot over most defenders, and he does so, a lot. This would be an infuriating choice were he not so good at it. Embiid is shooting 51 percent on shots from 10-16 feet. He can bruise when he wants to, but most of his time against the Celtics, he danced around in the midrange. Occasionally he'll be met a strong defender who refuses to cede ground or give him airspace. Embiid can answer with a dribble, a pivot, a pump-fake, a light step and poof, all 280 pounds of him are on the other side of the impasse, and his shot is coming off clean. Each of the three MVP candidates looks impossible in his own way, some unprecedented fusion of huge physique and broad skillset. Embiid sometimes feels like the most surreal of the bunch. No matter how many times he confirms his talents, this does not compute: tyrannical rim protector on one side of the floor, respectable KD impression on the other end. (Though perhaps Victor Wembanyama will help normalize this sight in the NBA.) This game was a torrent of soft-touch jumpers that would make an idiot weep.

According to ESPN tracking, Embiid was double-teamed on 13 possessions in this game; the Sixers shot 9-for-11 on those possessions, scoring 23 points. But the Celtics can still draw confidence from the fact that they almost overcame an Embiid masterclass while leaning heavily on guys who won't figure in their postseason coverage: a lot of Grant Williams, even some Luke Kornet and Blake Griffin. When the games mean more and the rotation tightens up, that assignment will belong to Al Horford, probably the most battle-hardened Embiid defender in the league, and Rob Williams, who sat out Tuesday's game. Courtesy of the best missed free-throw sequence I have ever seen, the Celtics kept it a one-possession game with two seconds to go in regulation.

Mostly, though, the Celtics hung around in this game because Sixers not named Joel Embiid shot a combined 36 percent from the floor. The Celtics held a 15-point edge in the merely nine minutes of rest that Embiid was permitted. After the game, Sixers coach Doc Rivers explained that his team's badness is another case for Embiid's goodness. "There's so many things we did wrong, but what we did right was Joel Embiid. The MVP race is over," said Rivers. "Tonight we couldn't make shots. We had guys with open shots. The man just scored half our points in an NBA game." Embiid all but clinched the scoring title with this performance, averaging 33.3 points in his 65 games, and for whatever it's worth, he's now the betting favorite for the award he is hunting. I like it. To the extent that the MVP is a document of an era's defining players, his is the most conspicuous name still missing.

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