It’s the NBA’s worst kept secret that Boston hoped to limit Joel Embiid in their first-round matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers. Already a prime candidate to dominate a front court lacking in top-shelf size, Embiid was expected to carry the brunt of Philly’s offensive load in the absence of his All-Star teammate, Ben Simmons.
Twelve minutes into Game 1, Boston’s worst nightmares about the type of damage Embiid could do came to life. He punished Jaylen Brown for an easy lay-in and unleashed a quick one-dribble sweeping hook over Daniel Theis.
By the time the second quarter kicked off, Embiid was 5-of-5 from the field for 11 first-quarter points. He looked on pace for the exact type of outing an undermanned Sixers team would need to compete.
“He’s probably the best big man in the league,” Jayson Tatum said following Game 1. “It’s going to take a team effort just to make it tough. With guys like that, it’s hard to stop. You just have to make it tough and make them see bodies, see a crowd, and things like that.”
However, in the three quarters after, Philly abandoned the principles that earned a one-point edge after the first, helping Boston to a 109-101 victory. Embiid was fourth on the team in shot attempts behind names like Josh Richardson and Alec Burks. He was 3-of-7 on 2-pointers and missed all three of his triples, scoring 15 in under 27 minutes after previously needing less than 10 to put up 11.
If not for nine makes on 12 free-throw attempts, his final points tally would’ve been far more underwhelming than his 26 total would suggest.
As much credit as the Celtics would like to take for Embiid’s disappearance en route to a 1-0 series lead, much of the cause lies in self-inflicted tendencies on the part of Embiid.
Taking more than three career 3-point attempts a game, Embiid does every defense a favor when he spots up beyond the arc. The Sixers might lack the shooters to make him comfortable on either block, but he’s too dominant an interior force to let defenses dictate his positioning on the court instead of the other way around.
Marcus Smart is no easy player to budge, but an open paint is perfect for Embiid to seal Smart for a close look. If nothing else, getting Smart on Embiid’s back side leaves Al Horford open on the wing. The right read from Burks leaves Jayson Tatum to straddle or choose between letting Horford or Furkan Korkmaz get a clean 3-point look.
Instead, Embiid instinctively drifts to the top of the key, where a slow jab precedes a 3-point shot with nine seconds left on the shot clock.
Boston certainly had its moments of pride guarding Embiid. Enes Kanter was used as a big body capable of withstanding the punishment Embiid’s 250-pound frame. Kanter was a plus-six in just four fourth-quarter minutes in part because of the way he kept Embiid out of the restricted area, even when the big man established solid low-post positioning.
Even on this possession, Embiid bails the Celtics out with just a single dribble before getting up a right-handed jump hook that fell short. You’d typically want greater effort from Embiid to get the shot he wants rather than the one he feels he can get, especially with plenty of time on the clock.
The fear of a swarming double-team might explain the early shot. It’s one of the ways Boston has held Embiid to 39.1 percent shooting across three regular season meetings and contributed to his game-high five turnovers.
Four of those turnovers were the result of Boston’s defense, two passes intercepted and strips via a double team. They breed hesitancy and fear in a player who should do the same to his opponents.
In a game of rhythm, the rushed looks as a result play right into the Celtics’ hands, taking a superstar off his norm if only a smidge. It’s on Embiid to embrace a help defender and use it to create open shots for his teammates. To be more reactionary with confidence than tremble in assumptions, even when weighing the risk of a potential turnover.
A similar bail out occurred in the second quarter, again with Kanter discouraging Embiid from trying to bully his way to the bucket with plenty of time to do so.
It’s one thing for Embiid to forego the shots he needs in favor of a different hot Sixers hand, except no such streak was ignited in this game. The three Sixers who took more shots than Embiid following his first quarter surge were a combined 14-for-36.
“With the way I started the first quarter, I just need to be more assertive and demand the ball and just be aggressive,” Embiid said after the loss.
Brett Brown was quoted as being against “smash-mouth, bully-ball post-ups,” the exact style Boston is ill-equipped to consistently slow. So while the Celtics remain committed to the schemes that held Embiid below 20 points twice during the regular season, it’s not the matchup rotations or precisely times doubles teams that will likely advance them to the second round.
Embiid and the Sixers simply remain stubborn in making their lives more difficult in spite of the lone advantage they have.