Embiid's Sixers may never get a better title shot
This is your moment, Philadelphia.
This might prove to be the 76ers’ best chance at a championship during the Joel Embiid era; past, present, or future.
After running the Boston Celtics off the floor in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference semifinal to take a 3-2 series lead, Philadelphia moved within one win of the conference finals, but it’s not like Embiid’s Sixers haven’t been here before. In the 2019 East semis, the 76ers found themselves tied in the final seconds of Game 7 against the eventual champion Raptors before Kawhi Leonard delivered the buzzer-beating dagger. In 2021, the top-seeded Sixers lost a franchise-altering Game 7 at home to the fifth-seeded Hawks. But this year feels different.
Perhaps it’s that Embiid, himself, finally broke through to claim the NBA’s highest individual honor, being named the league’s MVP after rival center Nikola Jokic had kept him from the distinction in each of the last two seasons.
Perhaps it’s that the 76ers appear to have finally survived Embiid’s annual postseason injury. After completing a first-round sweep of the sixth-seeded Nets without Embiid, who missed Game 4 of that series with a sprained knee, James Harden and the Embiid-less Sixers stole Game 1 in Boston. After losing two straight contests with Embiid back in the lineup, Philly has won the last two, with the MVP pouring in 67 points and 20 rebounds over those two games.
Embiid logged more than 46 minutes in an overtime victory Sunday – setting up Harden’s game-winner – then recorded four blocks as part of another monstrous performance Tuesday, none more impressive or inspiring than a fourth-quarter chase-down denial of Jaylen Brown that sent Embiid crashing into the stanchion.
Maybe it’s that Harden has, at times, given Embiid more postseason help than any teammate since Jimmy Butler four years ago. Though no longer able to consistently create separation or bend opposing defenses the way he did in his own MVP-level prime, Harden has eclipsed the 40-point mark twice in the second round, hitting the big shots Philly has failed to come up with in recent years.
Heck, maybe it’s just that the Sixers appear to have finally solved the Celtics, a team that has tormented generations of Philadelphia basketball fans. Embiid’s Sixers had gone 1-8 over two series losses against Boston in the playoffs (in 2018 and 2020), but the franchise as a whole has lost five straight postseason matchups against the Celtics dating back to 1985.
It helps that the Celtics, themselves, look so discombobulated. Credit Embiid and the Sixers’ defense, but the reigning Eastern Conference champions have also shot themselves in the foot. Most infamously, despite trailing by one point with 18 seconds remaining and two timeouts left at the end of overtime in Game 4, Joe Mazzulla’s Celtics held for the last shot – a shot they didn’t even get off in time.
Given some of the uninspiring postseason efforts the Sixers have put forth in recent years, and how many times these Celtics have proved themselves in the playoffs, it’s been jarring to watch the team in green trip all over itself while Embiid’s Sixers play the part of the resilient bunch.
Perhaps the answer to why this year feels different in Philly lies in the team’s regular-season performance, as the Sixers met all the requirements of a championship squad. They’ve simply been a sharper team all year, one that looks ready to win after learning from years of postseason failures.
To be clear, there’s still plenty of work to be done and much left to prove. Whether the Celtics force Game 7 or a future foe pushes Philly to the brink, Embiid, Harden, Doc Rivers, and the rest of the Sixers will need to show they can rise to the occasion with their backs against the wall. In eight career games when facing elimination, Embiid has shot 40% from the field while recording 37 turnovers to just 17 assists. Meanwhile, some of the lowest points in Harden’s career have come in the face of that same adversity, with the future Hall of Famer often too passive when his team is playing for its life.
Then again, the way things are going, the Sixers may not find themselves facing elimination this spring.
For now, the team returns home with a chance to close out the Celtics, slay its biggest postseason demon, and end the NBA’s fourth-longest conference finals drought. If the Sixers can do that, they would have home-court advantage through the rest of the playoffs, which helps explain why they’re now the betting favorites to win their first title in 40 years.
In the age of player empowerment, short contracts, and general NBA drama, championship windows open and close quickly. An injury, free-agency departure, or trade request is always lurking around the corner, ready to derail a team’s best-laid plans. It’s difficult to pinpoint when a team’s best chance – or perhaps its last chance – is upon us, but sometimes you can feel it.
This is that moment for Joel Embiid’s Philadelphia 76ers. What will they do with it?
Joseph Casciaro is theScore’s senior content producer.