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Celtics spacing floor to limit Joel Embiid’s impact on defense

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Al Horford and emerging three-point specialist Aron Baynes are doing their best to keep Embiid out of the paint.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics - Game One Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

It’s impossible to ignore Joel Embiid on the basketball court. At 7’2”, he towers over just about everyone in the NBA. In his first full season, Embiid has already become a star. On the offensive end, he’s a hyper-athletic giant that can score from almost anywhere.

And at the other end, he anchors a defense that allowed a sterling 99.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor this season, a defensive rating better than any team in the league. Embiid is tasked with many responsibilities like rim protection, switching onto guards, and helping on pick-and-rolls. His dominant play has made him one of the favorites for Defensive Player of the Year. However, the Celtics torched Philadelphia in Game 1 when Embiid was on the floor. Boston used floor spacing and the unique skills of their bigs to limit Embiid’s impact.

In the first 402 games of his career, Aron Baynes made a total of 4 three-pointers. He’s already matched that total in just 8 playoff games this season, including the two he made in Game 1. It’s a little weird to task “all of Australia” with nailing corner threes, but he’s been practicing all year for this very reason.

Embiid drops into the paint to tag the rolling Horford. When the ball moves to Baynes, Embiid hangs in the paint for a second. He doesn’t close out hard and Baynes buries the three over him.

Later in the game, Baynes sets up in the corner again.

This time, Marcus Smart finds Tatum on a cut to the basket, and Embiid can’t make it in time to contest the shot. Now, Embiid isn’t marking Baynes like he’s Steph Curry, but it gives a preview of what can happen by drawing him away from the basket. Embiid gets caught watching the ball and keeping on eye on Baynes, and that frees up the paint.

Baynes’s ability to hit some corner threes allows the Celtics to play big, and still maintain a modicum of spacing. If Embiid has to deal with a shooting threat in the corner, it opens up the floor for cuts and drives to the basket. And if he hangs in the paint, the Celtics can make the Sixers pay with open three-pointers.

Boston has other ways to limit Embiid by spreading the floor and playing small with Horford at center. Horford’s skill as a passer and shooter makes him a very effective perimeter player. When Horford handles the ball on the perimeter, it pulls Embiid out of the paint and leaves lesser defenders responsible for protecting the rim.

It works to perfection here. Tatum blows past J.J. Redick and Horford finds him on the cut. Embiid is left guarding Horford and Dario Saric can’t (or won’t) rotate in time to contest to dunk.

Horford shooting makes him a deadly pick-and-pop option. The Celtics put Embiid into a spread pick-and-roll here, with Shane Larkin driving and Horford dropping back to the three-point line.

Larkin is too fast for Redick, so Embiid has to provide help to prevent a layup. Larkin does a nice job to penetrate and draw Embiid in. This leaves Embiid with a ton of ground to make up if he wants to recover back to Horford. Nobody else rotates, and Horford nails the wide-open three.

It not like the Celtics are exposing Embiid as some kind of fraud on defense. He still affects the game whenever he’s on the floor. The point is to make his job as difficult as possible and minimize his impact. After one game in the series, it’s working so far.