The Boston Celtics scored one of their most substantial victories of the season on Tuesday night, a three-point win (on the road without Kyrie Irving) over the Philadelphia 76ers that secured them both the season series over the Sixers and the tiebreaker in the Eastern Conference standings. While you can pick any number of highlights to focus on, the core of the Celtics’ victory came in the paint, where they flustured Joel Embiid for much of the evening. Embiid struggled his way to 23 points and 14 rebounds on just 9-of-22 shooting from the field, including 3-of-12 shooting across the first three quarters. He never seemed to find a rhythm throughout the night, aside from a small stretch in the fourth quarter, and this was largely due to the player who has grown into his Embiid’s own personal kryptonite: Al Horford.
The individual matchup stats between the two paint a stark picture. Horford and Embiid have now faced off three times this season, and in those three meetings, Horford has defended Embiid for an average of 47 possessions. In those possessions, Embiid has shot just 42% from the field and coughed up nearly three turnovers on average. In terms of point differential, the Sixers have been a whopping eight points worse in these possessions.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Embiid managed just 36% from the field when facing Horford, posting ignominious 4-of-16 and 6-of-17 shooting lines in the first two regular season games they both appeared in and 42% in the Sixers’ five-game defeat to the Celtics in the second round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs last season.
Of course, to hear Embiid tell it, he was most certainly not owned.
Max and I both thought Al Horford was great again against Joel Embiid.— Sean Grande (@SeanGrandePBP) February 13, 2019
Apparently we were wrong. pic.twitter.com/t4KSD7NNTt
Despite Embiid’s protests, it’s clear that Horford and coach Brad Stevens have developed a strong plan for managing Embiid, but what might that approach be?
Tuesday night provided plenty of insight from the jump. On the Sixers’ opening possession, Embiid faced up on Horford and attempted to drive around him, but Horford stayed in front of him, baiting out an awkward seven-foot runner that Jayson Tatum swatted from behind.
Embiid thrives in the paint because of his ability to overpower most opposing centers, brute forcing his way to the rim. He simply doesn’t enjoy that advantage against Boston. Horford doesn’t give Embiid an inch, forcing Embiid to dig further into his bag of tricks to adapt. If you see qualifiers like “turnaround” or “fadeaway” attached to one of Embiid’s shot attempts, odds are he was being defended by Horford.
It’s true that Embiid is a high-skill player, with enough touch on his jumper to be a reasonable threat from the mid-range when allowed to shoot. These shots are merely an amuse-bouche, however, not the main course. Horford and the Celtics know this, and they want to encourage him to take as many as possible. Even if he hits some of them, they’re vastly preferable to allowing him chances at the rim.
In a league that has trended smaller in recent years, there just aren’t many centers capable of keeping pace with him one-on-one anymore, so most teams are forced to send extra attention his way in the paint. With his proficiency at finishing through contact (or passing out to the open man), this is a dangerous gamble for the average defense.
For a Philadelphia offense that has struggled to space the floor around their ball-dominant stars, Embiid’s ability to draw extra attention is a valuable source of open looks for his teammates. This isn’t a problem the Celtics have to grapple with as often at full strength, however, as Horford and Aron Baynes afford the Celtics an advantage that few teams enjoy against the Sixers: the ability to single-cover Embiid.
In last year’s second round, this proved disastrous for Philadelphia when taken in tandem with Ben Simmons’ complete unwillingness to shoot long jumpers. While the Sixers hope Tobias Harris’ prolific scoring will change the equation this time around, the formula worked the same as always on Tuesday night.
Joel Embiid’s favorite bit of trash talk has always been the suggestion that he “lives rent-free” in the heads of his opponents. It’s perhaps fittingly karmic, then, that Horford seems to have taken up residence in his. Until such a time that Embiid is able to serve up an eviction notice, that match up will continue to be a crucial advantage for the Celtics against their conference rivals.