Joel Embiid has risen from All-Star to an NBA Most Valuable Player candidate.
Following a strict offseason conditioning program, Embiid has led the Philadelphia 76ers to the top of the Eastern Conference.
Embiid's 42 points and 10 rebounds helped propel the Sixers past the visiting Boston Celtics 117-109 on Wednesday. He'll attempt to maintain such a level of excellence when the two teams meet again Friday in Philadelphia.
Embiid was 12 of 19 from the field and 17 of 21 from the free-throw line for his 10th career game of at least 40 points and 10 rebounds. Embiid and Washington's Bradley Beal are the only two players in the league with multiple 40-point games this season.
"For sure, he is MVP-caliber," teammate Tobias Harris said of Embiid. "Night after night, he controls the game, controls the paint. More than anything, defensively he is just a force for us."
Even with the Celtics sending double-teams Embiid's way, he sliced through the defense to the basket or made the proper pass. Tristan Thompson and Daniel Theis appeared to be frustrated by the end of the game.
"I love how he played tonight because he kind of let it come to him," Sixers coach Doc Rivers said. "With 40, that is hard to do. Every time they double-teamed him, he made the pass. Every time they didn't, he attacked."
The Sixers were swept by the Celtics in the first round of last season's playoffs in the Orlando bubble. Embiid hasn't forgotten the feeling.
"Losing to them in the playoffs and them being first in the East, you want to go out and you want to play against that competition," Embiid said. "You want to beat them."
Seth Curry missed Wednesday's game and his status is still unclear for the rematch due to the league's health and safety protocols.
The Celtics played well for large stretches and received 26 points from Jaylen Brown and 25 from Marcus Smart. But they clearly missed Jayson Tatum, who remains out due to COVID-19 protocols.
On Wednesday, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Tatum has a "50-50 chance" of playing Friday.
What is known is this: the Celtics must figure out a way to slow down Embiid.
"We've got to do our best to play without fouling," Stevens said. "He's going to score some, but 42 is too much. It's going to be hard to win a game when the best player on the other team gets 42 points. You have to go back to how can we be better. He had a huge impact on the game. He was terrific."
Smart was particularly peeved with the disparity in free throws.
And he didn't mince words following the tough loss.
"(Embiid) shot alone himself 21 free throws?" Smart said. "Our team shot 20. Can't beat that. They shot 36 for 45. We shot 13 for 20. Hard to win that way. It's tough, especially when we've got our hands up a lot of the times and he flails and gets the call and down on the other end we've got our guys attacking the rim, getting a lot of contact and we're not getting the whistle. It's tough to play like that."
The Celtics did receive a huge lift from Kemba Walker, who hit five 3-pointers and scored 19 points in just his second game back from a knee injury.
"My movement is a lot better," Walker said. "I'm more comfortable just being me."
--Field Level Media