The road to a return trip to the NBA Finals for the Boston Celtics appears to be more wide-open than ever. However, the Celtics, of all teams, would know that anything is possible in the postseason. In fact, the Celtics could end up facing one of its most difficult matchups in the playoffs in the first round, as it looks likely that one of the Philadelphia 76ers or Miami Heat will earn the eight-seed in the conference.

In fact, one noteworthy analyst in ESPN's Zach Lowe believes that the 76ers stand out as potentially the biggest threat to the Celtics' quest of winning banner number 18, especially amid all the uncertainty surrounding the Milwaukee Bucks and their championship hopes.

“There’s a shot that Philly is eighth and we have the heavyweight battle with [the Celtics]. You know, a lot of people right now would say, given the way the Bucks are playing, that Philly is the biggest threat to Boston in the Eastern Conference. I actually think that’s becoming more true by the day with Giannis’s injury and all of that,” Lowe said on the latest episode of The Lowe Post.

The 76ers' chances of striking a first-round upset, be it against the Celtics or the two-seed New York Knicks, all depend on how healthy Joel Embiid is. But in Embiid's five games since returning from injury, he has mostly resembled his MVP-level self, which bodes well for Philly moving forward.

Can Joel Embiid turn his playoff injury fortunes around?

Every season, it seems like Joel Embiid is being plagued by injuries, and at the worst possible moment for the 76ers. In 2018, Embiid sustained an orbital fracture that hampered his production en route to a second-round exit. The following year, Embiid dealt with knee tendinitis as the 76ers lost in the second round via a heartbreaking shot from Kawhi Leonard.

In 2020, Embiid was healthy, but the 76ers team was dysfunctional, Ben Simmons was out, and a playoff exit was nothing but a formality. And then in 2021, Embiid partially torn his meniscus in an easy first-round matchup against the Washington Wizards, slowing him down for stretches in their upset series loss against the Atlanta Hawks.

Just to rub it all in even further, Joel Embiid sustained another orbital fracture in 2022, and then he sprained his knee last year, causing him to miss two games.

Embiid is one of the most dominant players in today's game. All the 76ers are asking is for one playoff run where he and his best teammate (Tyrese Maxey) are 100 percent. And maybe, just maybe, the Sixers mount their best challenge against the Celtics in years, especially with master tactician Nick Nurse at the helm.

Celtics vs. 76ers: not a rivalry

Joel Embiid himself said that the 76ers don't have a rivalry against the Celtics because Boston always “kicks their a**”. Embiid is right; Boston is Philadelphia's bogey team in the playoffs, Embiid's white whale that has eluded him throughout his playoff career.

In 2018, the 76ers were taken care of in five games by a Celtics team that was missing Kyrie Irving; in 2020, they were swept without putting much of a fight. And then last year, despite a few explosive heroics from James Harden, the 76ers floundered when it mattered the most, with Harden and Embiid combining to shoot 8-29 from the field for a total of 24 points in a 112-88 defeat to the Celtics in Game 7 of the second round.

Nonetheless, there might be merit to the idea that Joel Embiid could be his best self the earlier it is in the playoffs. Now, the same can be said for a fresher Celtics team. But striking early may be the best way for the 76ers to knock off the biggest postseason roadblock they've had over the past seven years.