Joel Embiid enhanced his MVP credentials with a 52-point masterclass as the Philadelphia 76ers held off a furious late rally from the Boston Celtics to win a hard-fought battle of the Eastern Conference heavyweights on Tuesday.
Embiid – one of the front-runners for the NBA’s regular season Most Valuable Player award – produced a towering performance in a 103-101 victory in Philadelphia that all but extinguished second-placed Boston’s hopes of winning the top-seeding in the East.
The Celtics must now win all three of their remaining regular season games and hope that Milwaukee lose their final three fixtures to snatch first place and the all-important home advantage in the playoffs.
Embiid finished with 52 points from 20-of-25 shooting while hauling in 13 rebounds and laying on six assists, while James Harden finished with 20 points.
P.J. Tucker was the only other Sixers player in double figures, with the bulk of his 11 points coming from a flurry of three-pointers late in the fourth quarter.
However the third-placed Sixers were given a scare down the stretch, when they almost blew a 103-96 lead with just 10 seconds remaining to allow Boston to get back to within two points.
Celtics star Jayson Tatum missed a late two-point effort on the buzzer that could have forced overtime.
Embiid was unhappy with the Sixers’ late wobble that almost cost his team their first victory over Boston this season.
“I don’t know what we were doing,” Embiid said. “We’ve got to be better than that, me included. We’ve just got to be better.
“Offensively we were not good enough and defensively we got stops when we needed them. But we’ve got to be better than that – we might see them down the road.”
‘MVP race is over’
Sixers coach Doc Rivers said Embiid’s virtuoso performance ought to settle any debate about the identity of this season’s MVP award-winner.
“There were so many things we did wrong tonight — but what we did right was Joel Embiid,” Rivers said.
“The man just scored half our points in an NBA game. I’m biased, but the MVP race is over.”
Elsewhere on Tuesday, Giannis Antetokounmpo bagged a triple double as Milwaukee took a giant stride towards sealing top spot in the East with a 140-128 victory over the Washington Wizards.
Antetokounmpo finished with 28 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists to leave the Bucks within touching distance of first place.
The Bucks need only win one of their final three games to guarantee the No.1 seeding.
Once again, the Bucks balanced offense came to the fore in a comfortable victory, with six players finishing in double figures.
Jrue Holiday finished with 26 points and Brook Lopez 20 points while Bobby Portis and Jae Crowder added 19 apiece.
Joe Ingles finished with 12 off the bench -– all from three-point range.
But while the Bucks remain firmly on course to clinch first place in the East, the Denver Nuggets missed a golden opportunity to seal top spot in the Western Conference after slumping to a shock 124-103 defeat on the road to the Houston Rockets, who are bottom of the West with a 19-60 record.
Jalen Green’s 32 points led Houston to victory while Denver star Nikola Jokic –- the reigning two-time MVP –- was held to just 14 points.
The battle for the last two remaining automatic playoff places from the Western Conference is poised for a nail-biting finale with the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers all vying for the two berths.
The Warriors improved to 42-38 to move into fifth place in the standings with a 136-125 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in San Francisco, Steph Curry scoring 34 points and Jordan Poole adding 30.
The Warriors trailed by 10 early in the third quarter but outscored the Thunder 34-19 in the fourth quarter to claim a precious victory.
The Lakers meanwhile are just outside the automatic playoff places after securing a 135-133 overtime win over Utah on Tuesday.
LeBron James led the way for the Lakers with 37 points — including the game-winning layup in overtime — to clinch a fourth straight win.
The Lakers are now tied with the sixth-placed Clippers on 41-38, with the two teams due to meet in what promises to be a titanic local derby in the Western Conference on Wednesday.
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