BOSTON — Throughout his career, Joel Embiid has never been in the position he found himself in Tuesday night: a win away from advancing past the Boston Celtics — and to the Eastern Conference finals — for the first time in his career.
But when asked how he felt about being in that position after scoring 33 points to go along with 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 blocked shots in Philadelphia‘s 115-103 win over Boston in Game 5 of this Eastern Conference semifinal series here at TD Garden, the NBA’s newly minted Most Valuable Player wasn’t interested in discussing it.
“I honestly don’t care,” Embiid said. “We still got to get one more, and that’s all I’m thinking about right now. And then, obviously, you’re going home, so you’ll have a lot of energy in the crowd, and I imagine everybody plays better at home, too. I do play better at home.
“What we did tonight … it’s easier said than done, but we’ve got to do it again, and I’m excited for it.”
The 76ers made going on the road and winning for the second time in this series look — by playoff standards, relatively easy. Philadelphia shot 50% from the field, 40% from 3-point range, took care of the ball (before a series of mindless turnovers in the dying minutes of the game) and saw its stars — Embiid, James Harden (17 points, 8 rebounds, 10 assists) control the game.
That, coupled with a 30-point explosion from Tyrese Maxey and limiting the Celtics to 39.8% shooting overall and 12-for-38 (31.6%) from 3-point range, was enough for the 76ers to grab control of the game in the first quarter and never relinquish the lead.
Instead of the lead ebbing and flowing like it did in Game 4, Philadelphia quickly pushed the lead into double digits to start the third quarter, and Boston never got closer than 11 in the fourth quarter.
“Throughout the whole game we just stayed steady,” Embiid said. “So I think that’s a big change from last game, which I’m super happy about. If you’re up by that much you have to keep finding ways to increase [the lead], instead of giving them an opportunity to believe in themselves.
“I thought tonight we were locked in to make sure we didn’t really give them a chance.”
As Embiid said, Philadelphia’s performance was a far cry from Game 4, when the 76ers led by as many as 16 points in the second half before imploding and allowing Boston to take a 5-point lead late in the fourth quarter.
In this game, the 76ers were focused right from the jump, with Harden and Embiid masterfully running the pick-and-roll in a way they weren’t able to earlier in the series — something 76ers coach Doc Rivers attributed to spacing — while Harden accounted for half of the 76ers’ 20 assists by himself.
“I thought James was a magician tonight,” Rivers said. “He called a perfect game. He was aggressive early on when he needed to be aggressive and then he kind of sat back and played and got everybody else involved. I thought he was unbelievable.”
Embiid, too, was disciplined from the opening moments of the game. After — by his own admission — running out of energy in the latter stages of Game 4, from the beginning of Game 5 Embiid seemed to be measured in his movements, trying to make sure he’d have the energy to be there all the way to the end.
And, when he emphatically swatted away a Jaylen Brown layup — after Brown had stolen the ball from Embiid at the other end — midway through the fourth quarter, it was the exclamation point on his performance.
“He’s making plays,” Tucker said. “He’s doing what he’s supposed to do.
“He’s the MVP. That’s what he does. It’s what we expect of him. When he’s aggressive, he’s assertive, we’re a tough team.”
The same could be said for when Maxey — who Embiid said earlier in this series should be taking “12 to 14” 3-pointers a game — is going alongside Embiid and Harden. And that was certainly the case in this one, as he had those 30 points thanks to 6-for-12 shooting from 3-point range, while Tobias Harris — despite being saddled with foul trouble all night — finished with 16 points on 7-for-10 shooting to go along with 11 rebounds.
“Ball movement,” Rivers said, when asked what got Maxey going. “The ball went side to side. You think about it, he had three or four just point-blank 3s because of their rotations.
“With him and Tobias, it’s a barometer for us. If Tobias and Maxey are involved, that means the ball’s moving. If Tobias and Maxey are not involved, that means the ball’s not moving, and the ball moved today.”
Because it did, Philadelphia has moved within a game of advancing to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since Allen Iverson led the 76ers to the NBA Finals in 2001, as well as one win closer to capturing the franchise’s first championship in 40 years.
But while it was an upbeat and energetic 76ers locker room postgame, Embiid’s message about needing to be focused to get one more win was echoed across the room, as Rivers and the players hammered home the same theme: that the most difficult win to get in this series is the one that is yet to be achieved.
“We are up 3-2,” Rivers said. “All right? That’s it. We have to get our rest, and we have to get ready because they’re going to come and play great, and we got to be able to sustain that, and still win the game.”