PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid earned the highest stamp of approval from coach Doc Rivers after the All-Star center blistered Boston for his third 50-point game of the season and carried the 76ers on his beat-up, 7-foot frame to victory.
“The MVP race is over,” Rivers said.
There’s an argument to be made for Denver’s Nikola Jokic or Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Embiid, though, certainly won’t argue with his coach or Sixers teammates stumping on his behalf.
“They’re probably right,” Embiid said with a laugh. “But we have bigger goals in mind.”
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 Celtics on Tuesday night.
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 joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain as the only NBA centers with three 50-point games in a season.
Embiid had a career-high 59 points against the Utah Jazz in November and 53 against Charlotte in December. Considering the magnitude of this game — the 76ers hadn’t beat their East rivals all season — this effort was the most impressive one yet.
“If they end up the No. 2 seed, we might see them in the second round, if we make it there,” Embiid said.
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.
“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?
Tucker showed with his string of 3s — left open in large part because Embiid was double-teamed — he could be an option.
“PJ was huge. Three huge corner 3s, I mean, we don’t win that game without him,” Embiid said.
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.
Embiid shuffled off for the night in slippers, after one of the best performances of his career, hoping that never becomes a concern.
“If we can correct a lot of the mistakes that we made,” he said, “we’ve got a pretty good chance.”
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. … Only Chamberlain with five in 1965-66 has more 50-point games in a season for the Sixers than Embiid.
Celtics: Host Toronto on Wednesday.
76ers: Play their home finale Thursday against Miami.