PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid has been the early season MVP for the Sixers. At this rate, the All-Star center could be in contention for a bigger prize.
Embiid had 42 points and 10 rebounds, and Tobias Harris scored 22 points to lead the Philadelphia 76ers to a 117-109 win over the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night.
"It's not sort of, it's 'for sure' MVP-caliber," Harris said of his teammate.
Embiid is off to the best start of his career and topped 40 points for the second time in three games. He shot 12 of 19 from the floor (one 3-pointer) and was 17 of 21 from the free-throw line. He did it in 34 minutes and scored 20 points in a half (22 in the first) for the fifth time this season.
"If they double, we've got way too many shooters for me to be able to kick it out," Embiid said. "I can attack in a different style. It's been working well."
Ben Simmons had 11 points, eight rebounds and eight assists for the Sixers.
Jaylen Brown led the Celtics with 26 points and Marcus Smart had 25. Kemba Walker scored 19 points in his second game of the season after he missed the first 11 with a left knee injury.
The Sixers fell short in their attempt to trade for James Harden and left Embiid to perform the heavy lifting for a franchise that needs at least one other elite scorer to make a serious run in the East. When the Celtics snapped a tie game in the third with a 9-0 run it was Embiid — who else? — who steadied the Sixers with a three-point play.
"I'm not surprised at the level," coach Doc Rivers said. "He's just more talented than even I knew. I knew he was extremely talented, but he has so many more gifts."
Simmons was expected to develop into that true cornerstone star to pair with Embiid, only this season there has been more frustration than flashes of brilliance. Rivers has insisted he's not worried about Simmons' stats, but the Sixers need more than what he's giving them. Simmons was whistled for two offensive fouls within 30 seconds late in the third and the Celtics ended the quarter with a 92-86 lead.
Walker returned in the fourth — he played only 90 seconds in the third on a minutes restriction — and the Sixers had to run out a lineup without Embiid or Simmons early in the quarter. Shake Milton, making a case for top NBA sixth man, and Harris, whose three-point play gave the Sixers a 100-99 lead, kept it a game until Embiid and Simmons returned.
Embiid checked in with 7:44 left and the Sixers holding that one-point lead. Down three, Embiid sank a fadeway to hit 38 points to pull the Sixers within one, grabbed a defensive board, drove to the hoop and was fouled. He sank both again in the clutch.
"He's going to score some, but 42 is too much," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "I thought not only did he score those points, he also handed the double (team) pretty well and on a couple of occasions, it led to 3-pointers."
Danny Green's fourth 3-pointer of the game put the Sixers up 108-105 and they put away a Celtics team that swept them in the first-round of the playoffs last season.
Celtics: F Jayson Tatum is out of health and safety protocol and could play Friday against the 76ers. … C Robert Williams was cleared to play after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier this month.
76ers: G Furkan Korkmaz returned after missing several games with a left adductor strain. His reverse dunk in transition in the third quarter was the play of the game. … Seth Curry and Vincent Poirier remained out for COVID-related reasons. … F Mike Scott also sat out with swelling in his right knee.
Boston's Marcus Smart said Embiid "flails and he gets the call. Meanwhile on the other end, we attack and we don't get the whistles. It's tough playing like that." Embiid laughed off the accusation and said, "I'm sure he knows himself and knows his game, too. He does a lot of that."
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
Rivers was invited to speak at a Joe Biden rally after the President used Rivers' words in an October speech, calling for racial unity at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Rivers said he has been friends with Vice President Kamala Harris for nearly a decade and became "emotional" watching the inauguration. Rivers said he has talked and texted with Harris since the November election, but joked he's not so sure he'll be in her contacts in the immediate future.
"I get a feeling starting today my texts may not go through anymore," Rivers said, laughing. "I know they change phones as of today."
The Celtics and Sixers are back at it Friday in Philly.