Joel Embiid is the Second Coming. That is, he’s perpetually in second place, whether it’s to Nikola Jokić in MVP battles, playoff battles, or on the All-NBA team. Count the Boston Celtics as another circumstance where Embiid finishes second. On Saturday night, Embiid continued his second-place tradition in a 107-110 loss to the Celtics. Despite his best efforts on a 41-point night, the Sixers squandered a 15-point halftime lead.
Dating back to their Feb. 15 clash with Boston in 2022, Philadelphia has now dropped four straight against the Celtics. In those four games, Embiid has averaged 28.5 points, nearly 11 boards, and four assists per contest. James Harden has also met expectations in the last three he’s played in as a Sixer. The Celtics have just been better collectively.
If this trend continues, the Sixers are beginning to look like the latest addition to Philadelphia’s mosaic of professional sports bridesmaids. The Philadelphia Union, Eagles, and Phillies have all finished second in the past year, and the 76ers look destined to join them if they can’t get clear their Celtics hump by the postseason.
The Sixers have punched back into the upper echelon this season, but haven’t been able to take that next step. This is the closest they’ve felt to a legitimate title contender since Kawhi Leonard’s fadeaway danced on the rim and sent the Sixers packing in the 2019 Eastern Conference Semis.
The problem goes beyond coaching
The blame for Saturday’s loss can’t even be placed solely at Doc Rivers’ feet. On the Sixers’ final offensive possession, Rivers set up an Iverson cut to put Embiid one-on-one with the much smaller Jaylen Brown. Embiid took advantage by drawing a foul and calmly draining both free throws to tie it up.
Tatum lingered in the background for most of the night but rose to the forefront when it mattered most. After Joe Mazzulla called a timeout with the score tied and 5.9 seconds remaining, Boston executed the same out-of-timeouts play they’d run to perfection against Cleveland on Nov. 2 to send that game to overtime. This time, the inbounds pass to Marcus Smart led to him lacing a bounce pass to Tatum as he sprinted past the halfcourt line. Tatum quickly created separation from De’Anthony Melton with a behind-the-back dribble and squared up for a dagger three at the of the key to give Boston the lead.
Embiid nearly pulled a miracle off on what would have been a game-winning heave from 70 feet. A shot of that magnitude on primetime would have at least shifted the MVP narrative on a night when Jokic was struggling in a loss to Memphis. However, he barely reacted after realizing he’d released his shot after the game clock had expired, in combination with the numbing brutal disappointment that’s been The Process era.
“I wish I would’ve shot it sooner. Unfortunately, the story of my life,” is all an emotionally drained Embiid could muster in his postgame.
Outside of their two stars, Philly will need a rotating cast in their ensemble to step up if they wind up head-to-head with these Celtics in a postseason matchup. Boston can rely on Derrick White, Marcus Smart, or Al Horford to keep them afloat in a seven-game series. Horford re-emerged to haunt Philly again. Ironically, they signed Celtics big Al Horford to a four-year contract in 2019 and tried to squeeze him in at power forward between Embiid and Simmons in a large, but plodding frontcourt. That ultimately ended with Horford getting traded to the Thunder and then back to Boston where he’s remained a thorn in the side of Philadelphia. Horford scored 15 points, including four momentum-shifting three-pointers, and is shooting a remarkable 47 percent from distance this season. Meanwhile, Philadelphia still hasn’t solved its backup center dilemma.
In a conference where the talent among the top-three teams is equal, the Celtics and even the Bucks appear to have a mental advantage over Philadelphia, and for the Sixers, there doesn’t appear to be any easy answer in sight.