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Embiid indeed: MVP’s sublime return sets 76ers up for deep NBA playoff run in the paper-thin East

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Expert
13th April, 2024
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The only realistic threat to Boston’s chances of strolling through the Eastern Conference is a team that could still end up in the play-in tournament. 

Joel Embiid’s return from a knee injury has reinvigorated Philadelphia’s season just when it looked like it was going to be a write-off. 

And with Milwaukee struggling, Julius Randle not returning for New York, the Heat remaining hot and cold and Cleveland stuck in reverse, the 76ers are shaping as the only side likely to stand between the Celtics and a Finals berth. 

Embiid is the reigning MVP but he won’t go back to back after missing 29 games during a two-month layoff due to a knee injury. 

He only returned less than a fortnight ago but the 76ers have won six straight with their All-Star centre back in the line-up as he has quickly found his groove to silence the critics who thought the team should shut him down to ensure he is right for the 2024-25 season.

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Next season be damned, the Sixers are still a chance of snaring their first championship since 1983 this time around. 

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Embiid racked up 32 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists despite an injury scare early in Saturday’s 125-113 win over Orlando. He limped off with an apparent knee problem but returned to vanquish his opposition.

With one game left in the regular season, the Sixers are still seventh in the East at 46-35 but trail the Magic and Indiana, who have the same record on the complicated head-to-head and divisional tie-breakers used to decide playoff seedings. 

Philly have a walkover to finish their season against the walking dead Brooklyn Nets but need Orlando to lose to Milwaukee, which is entirely possible, and/or the Pacers to go down to Atlanta, pretty unlikely, to rise into the top six and avoid the play-in threat that comes with finishing seventh. 

With a healthy Embiid on their side, Philadelphia can beat anyone. 

He is averaging more than a point a minute, 34.7 in 33.6, over the course of the season while also contributing 11 rebounds , 1.7 blocks and a career-high 5.6 assists. 

But it’s not just the quantity of his stats but the quality of his game that is jaw dropping. 

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His three-point shooting percentage of 38.8% is the highest of his career. Previous to this season, opposition teams were happy when he settled for a long-range bomb because it meant he wasn’t dominating inside.

But now he is an ultra reliable threat outside as well as inside, which makes him nearly impossible for other teams to reign in his scoring. 

If a smaller, faster big is put on him, Embiid takes them into the paint and they can’t stop him close to the hoop. But if rival coaches try to stop him with one of the few bodies as gigantic as Embiid, that’s when he uses his nimble footwork to stretch the floor by shooting from the arc.

For the Celtics, their two options are Al Horford and Kristaps Porzingis – both are capable defenders but even if they share the Embiid duties, they’re no guarantee of limiting the damage too much. 

The bracket should open up nicely for the Sixers if they finish sixth or seventh – they could face a Bucks side which has been in freefall in recent weeks and Giannis Antetokounmpo could be sidelined with a calf problem.

Or they could match up against a Knicks outfit which has been steady but not spectacular in the closing weeks of the season despite Jalen Brunson storming into the All-NBA Second Team calculations. 

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Cleveland, Orlando and Indiana form a soft centre of the Eastern bracket while Miami are living on their past reputation of being a team that can make a run from eighth where they’re all but guaranteed to finish. 

On top of Embiid’s injury woes, a deep playoff run for Philadelphia would be even more remarkable given their hand was forced at the start of the season by James Harden to trade the former MVP to the LA Clippers for a package which included decent draft capital but no meaningful current players.

The rise of point guard Tyrese Maxey has offset the Harden deficit and the acquisition of sharpshooter Buddy Heild at the trade deadline from the Pacers has been a welcome boost but with Tobias Harris’ output waning, there is still a distinct lack of true star power in Embiid’s support cast. 

No team has even won the NBA title from seventh but Miami went mighty close last year from eighth so it’s not an impossible dream. 

Boston deserve to be unbackable favourites to emerge from the conference but with Embiid already back to his pre-injury form, Philadelphia will be a formidable playoff beast in the East.

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