Joel Embiid reminded viewers just how much he's capable of, individually, on Sunday. The 76ers center scored 40 points and collected 15 boards to lead Philadelphia to a statement win over the Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks that clinched the Sixers their second consecutive playoff appearance. Neither side was necessarily at their respective top form, but Embiid's performance was noteworthy.
Since Embiid has returned from a knee ailment, the Sixers haven't lost, notching their fourth straight win Sunday. The 25-year-old had been out since the All-Star break, and throughout that stretch, Philadelphia looked inconsistent—the Sixers beat the Oklahoma City, then lost to Golden State by just three points; they also loss to Chicago and were unconvincing in a 16-point defeat at Houston.
Philadelphia went 4–4 in Embiid's absence, but things changed upon his return. The Sixers rattled off three straight wins against Indiana, Cleveland and Sacramento, putting their form to a proper litmus test against Milwaukee.
The Sixers' starting lineup of Embiid, Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, JJ Redick and Ben Simmons, started together for just the seventh time this season on Sunday. The group is on pace to become the first starting five in which all members averaged over 17 points per game. In Butler, Harris and Simmons, Philadelphia boasts a trio capable of changing a game. But the manner which Embiid is able to clasp his grip over a contest gives Philadelphia a different kind of edge.
It's nearly impossible to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak went off for a career-high 52 points against the Sixers on Sunday, and Embiid was a bystander for a good portion of the show. Philadelphia coach Brett Brown deployed Embiid to stick Antetokounmpo, pitting the two giants both at the top of the key and in the paint. At times, Embiid's bulky presence did impede Antetokounmpo's ability to easily create in the lane, although not often enough to call it successful. Nonetheless, Embiid made up for whatever he was relinquishing on the defensive end by unleashing his full offensive arsenal.
Embiid went 4-for-13 from behind the arc. He added six assists. He scored 18 of his 40-piece in the fourth quarter, including a clutch three-pointer with 35.6 seconds left.
The effort wasn't single-handed, but he led the way. Harris finished with 12 points, Simmons scored eight. Butler (27 points) and Redick (19 points) held up their weight, but it was Embiid's performance that allowed Philadelphia to remain in front for nearly the entire contest.
Entering the final stretch of the season, it appears, for now, that Philadelphia is likely the best contender to challenge the East's top squads in Milwaukee and Toronto. Embiid's health will determine how far the Sixers can go, but if he's able to get his legs under him going into the postseason, Philadelphia will prove a sturdy out.