PHILADELPHIA – The moment his small son Arthur ran onto the court, to be lifted high by his gigantic father, pushed Joel Embiid over the top. The pre-Game 3 ceremony to present him with the NBA’s Most Valuable Player trophy, a forever goal of the Philadelphia 76ers center, was going as planned as Embiid felt the loud embrace of the team’s fans.
His parent already had been introduced when Embiid’s son stole the scene and so many hearts. That was all it took to push dad over the top, the family for whom he labors so hard these days, and he cried joyfully in the moment.
Things went steadily downhill from there for the Sixers, though, as they got beat 114-102 by the Boston Celtics Friday at Wells Fargo Center. With Boston up 2-1, there’s a chance Game 4 Sunday will be a different sort of poignant – it could be Philadelphia’s last home game of the season unless multiple things change fast.
Here are five takeaways from the Celtics’ victory, in which Embiid held center stage as the game’s leading scorer and rebounder but happily would have traded that for a better outcome.
1. Boston took care of the blood and sweat
The tears belonged to Philadelphia, with Embiid before the game and so many exiting early from the stands. The Celtics played harder, had more exacting game plans at both ends and never let the home team get much of a run at all.
“The team that’s more focused, with more attention to detail, will usually win in any sport,” said Boston’s Jaylen Brown, the tip of the spear for his side’s aggressive, mutating defense.
Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers and Embiid talked about “50-50 balls” and other want-to situations that Boston bent to its will, but in truth the Celtics’ intensity was dialed up higher all night.
The Sixers’ last lead vanished with Marcus Smart’s 3-pointer at 8:34 of the second quarter. Only once in the second half did Philadelphia get the ball in its hands with a chance to tie or lead – James Harden launching a step-back three at 4:46, down 74-72. In 14 seconds, Derrick White rebounded and the Celtics moved the ball for an Al Horford 3-pointer, one of many quick rebuttals Boston had to thwart any sustained runs.
The sweat, then, came dripping off the Celtics’ hard work. The blood, well, that was most evident in the fourth quarter when Brown and Grant Williams hit the floor face down in a tangle with Embiid and the massive Sixers player inadvertently stepped on the back of Williams’ head. “Curb-stomped,” said Boston’s reserve forward, who suffered a gash that required a blood-stoppage with 5:08 to go.
“To get stepped on by a 300-pound individual … that’s probably the craziest thing I’ve seen on a basketball court,” Brown said. “To see his face smashed onto the court and get up with a smile on his face, that’s Grant Williams.”
2. Harden brought this on himself
If only Harden hadn’t lit up the Celtics, humiliated them even, with 45 points to carry Philadelphia on a night Embiid was absent, maybe he wouldn’t be feeling the full force of Boston’s defense the way he is.
How hard has it been for the one-time MVP, paying this price for that vintage outing in the series opener? That night, the bearded one made 17 of his 30 shots and half of his 14 3-pointers. Since then, he has shot a combined 5-of-28 in the two losses and made only two 3s in 13 tries. Sixteen of his 28 points have come from the foul line, the one place Boston defenders cannot get at him.
Getting Harden to miss is one level of defensive success. Boston has taken it a level beyond to the point that Harden was passing up shots Friday night. He was lugging a 1-of-7 start when he broke toward the basket and never looked at the rim, for example, scanning quickly for somewhere to pass the ball.
Another time, he was open from about 20 feet but dribbled behind his back as if waiting for a Celtic to rush over, just to avoid shooting.
Embiid said he wants Harden to stay aggressive and keep shooting. But the reluctance he displayed had to give 76ers fans Ben Simmons flashbacks.
3. Celtics’ shots were timely
Boston didn’t light it up in Game 3. Its shooters were average at best from the arc, missing 29 of the 45 they hoisted. But the Celtics did find their range when it mattered most, when Philadelphia tried to muster something resembling a late push.
After a while, it was uncanny how they countered blow after blow from the Sixers. Early in the fourth quarter, Philadelphia sub Georges Niang got hot, scoring seven straight for the home team. But White and Marcus interrupted his streak with buckets of their own.
De’Anthony Melton drained a 3 from the left corner to make it 97-92. Sure enough, Malcolm Brogdon countered from the left wing for Boston. A little later, at 100-94 with 3:51 to go, Embiid tipped in his own miss. Horford responded with another 3, using a ball fake to get a wide-open look to keep the Sixers down.
And from there, Jayson Tatum scored seven of his team’s last 11 points to Philadelphia’s six.
4. Embiid isn’t healthy enough to carry these guys
The big man’s numbers took a jump and he seemed less out of synch in Game 3, but it’s pretty clear Embiid is not 100% recovered from his right knee sprain. He mentioned in Boston how it typically would be a four-week injury, and at this point he only has been on the mend for two.
That makes his current predicament so daunting. Embiid carried the Sixers plenty of times this season. But his teammates are sputtering so much offensively that he’s now getting outmanned by Boston’s defense. Once, near the end of the third quarter, coach Joe Mazzulla’s team swarmed him with a triple-team.
Did the defeat spoil Embiid’s special MVP evening? Probably not. But it’s a shame that within minutes of his speech thanking his teammates for how they made his award possible, they promptly let him down. Besides Harden, there was Tyrese Maxey’s 4-of-16 shooting and Tobias Harris’ seven points, taking only six shots.
5. Bye bye, home-court edge
The Sixers had not played at home in 18 days. They wrapped up their first-round sweep of Brooklyn on the road, had the longest layoff of any team heading into the conference semifinals, then opened this series in Boston.
Their crowd, in other words, should have been primed for peak volume and maximum influence. Add the MVP ceremony and nothing short of a frenzy would have been acceptable for some of the sports world’s most raucous fans.
Well, they tried for a while, targeting Smart in particular as the object of their resentments through the first half. But Boston never came close to withering under the anti-hospitality and as the minutes passed, both vitriol and volume faded. Most were headed to the exits by the final horn, and get this: With Sunday’s Game 4 set as a matinee, historically less boisterous than night games, it might not get any better for these folks.
Or the team that needs them desperately now.
* * *
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery Sports.