The Washington Post

Embiid has kept the faith in Philadelph­ia. When will that pay off?


Jayson Tatum slammed on the brakes, dribbled behind his back, pulled up to shoot over a defender and then drilled a pictureper­fect three-pointer with

1.3 seconds left. In one smooth motion, he silenced the Philadelph­ia crowd, which had foolishly gotten its hopes up, and delivered the winning margin in a 110-107 comeback victory over the 76ers on Saturday.

The clutch shot’s redemptive value wasn’t lost on the all-star forward, who acknowledg­ed that his Boston Celtics teammates had carried him for most of the preceding 47 minutes

58.7 seconds. Tatum’s 7-for-17 shooting and five turnovers were forgiven — and soon to be forgotten entirely — once he hit the last shot to complete, in his words, a “perfect story.”

But there are at least two sides to every tale, and the 76ers’ version was an all-too-familiar nightmare, made worse by the fact that Joel Embiid swished a 75-foot heave at the buzzer, only to have the miracle wiped out because it left his hands a fraction of a second too late. As 76ers fans cheered the improbable shot, Embiid kept a straight face and motioned to the crowd that he knew his trigger hadn't been quick enough.

“Unfortunat­ely, story of my life,” said Embiid, who finished with a game-high 41 points to go with 12 rebounds and five assists in Philadelph­ia’s fourth consecutiv­e loss to Boston dating from last season.

That woe-is-me sentiment was actually delivered in a matter-offact tone, but Embiid knows close calls and disappoint­ment all too well. Tatum has lived a charmed life by comparison, reaching the Eastern Conference finals at 20 and the NBA Finals at 24. Embiid, who turns 29 next month, is still hoping the 76ers will finally enjoy a postseason breakthrou­gh nine years after he was drafted.

Along the way, Embiid has endured a laundry list of individual snubs and team failures. He finished second in MVP voting in 2021 and 2022, and he may place second again this season. He has been consistent­ly boxed out of the allNBA first team, earning secondteam selections in four of the past five years. Ditto for the alldefensi­ve teams, where he has been a three-time secondteam­er. He even placed fourth in a three-man race to land an Eastern Conference frontcourt all-star starting spot last month.

Meanwhile, the 76ers were eliminated from the 2019 playoffs by the Toronto Raptors on a last-second buzzer-beater in Game 7, then crumbled as favorites in Game 7 at home against the Atlanta Hawks in the 2021 playoffs and fell to the Miami Heat in last year’s conference semifinals after Embiid suffered an orbital fracture in the first round. The Celtics have gotten their digs in, too, bouncing Embiid’s 76ers during his first playoff appearance in 2018 and sweeping him out of the bubble in 2020.

Yet Embiid keeps coming back for more, unwilling to accept this demoralizi­ng fate or demand a trade to greener pastures.

“Doing winning things all the time,” 76ers Coach Doc Rivers said. “That’s the separator for everyone. Joel, when you look at him two years ago to now, it’s night and day. You can’t stop. . . . Joel this summer put in as much time as anyone in the gym. That’s why he’s having the year he’s having.”

The six-time all-star has averaged a career-high

33.1 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists, numbers that have only been matched by three greats from a bygone era: Kareem Abdul-jabbar, Wilt Chamberlai­n and Elgin Baylor. After missing eight of Philadelph­ia’s first 20 games, Embiid has responded by leading his team to the East’s third seed and a 39-20 record, on pace for 54 wins entering Monday. He ranks second in player efficiency rating, second in real plus-minus and fifth in win shares.

With Embiid peaking, the 76ers are well-positioned to capitalize on the East’s changing landscape. No team benefited more from the Brooklyn Nets’ implosion: The 76ers poached James Harden last year, and they won’t need to sweat the possibilit­y of facing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the first round come April. Dumping a disgruntle­d and unreliable Ben Simmons, plus his massive contract, on Brooklyn now looks like the cherry on top.

Harden has been a more reliable performer this season than he was during the 2022 playoffs, and Philadelph­ia’s rotation is better equipped for big moments thanks to P. J. Tucker and De’anthony Melton, defensive-minded veterans who arrived last summer. What’s more, the Heat and the Hawks — the last two teams to eliminate the 76ers — have both flirted hard with mediocrity this season.

The 76ers are one of only three teams, along with the Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers, to rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, a key barometer for top contenders. As it stands, they would be heavy favorites against the No. 6 seed New York Knicks in the first round, and a showdown with Giannis Antetokoun­mpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in a conference semifinal almost certainly would be a nip-andtuck slugfest.

“This [loss to Boston] doesn’t change anything for us,” Rivers said. “Stay encouraged. We’re right there.”

For all of these favorable developmen­ts, Tatum’s backbreaki­ng jumper was a reminder that the Celtics loom as boogeymen. Blessed with a deep roster, plenty of experience and a pair of all-star wings in Tatum and Jaylen Brown who haunt opposing perimeter defenses, Boston has won 10 of its past 15 meetings with Philadelph­ia since February 2020, including the playoffs.

Embiid can punish Al Horford and Robert Williams III inside, but the Celtics know every trick to exhaust Philadelph­ia’s 7-footer and force the ball out of his hands with double teams. To beat Boston in a seven-game series, Embiid will need to consistent­ly outplay Tatum by a comfortabl­e margin. Crucially, though, his supporting cast must deliver far more than it did Saturday, when Harden finished 5 for 16 and Philadelph­ia’s reserves were outscored 27-12 by their counterpar­ts. To write a different and less painful ending, Embiid is counting on his side characters.

“[ The Celtics are] extremely deep,” he said. “On any given night, especially if their best player isn’t playing well, they have a lot of guys who can pick it up. . . . I know I can’t be aggressive all the time. I’ve got to make plays for my teammates. At the end of the day, you need them to knock down big shots. It’s going to pay off at some point.”

 ?? MITCHELL LEFF/GETTY IMAGES ?? Joel Embiid’s 41 points and 12 rebounds weren’t enough to beat the Celtics on Saturday. It was the 76ers’ fourth straight loss to Boston.
MITCHELL LEFF/GETTY IMAGES Joel Embiid’s 41 points and 12 rebounds weren’t enough to beat the Celtics on Saturday. It was the 76ers’ fourth straight loss to Boston.

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