It was never going to be easy against Joel Embiid and the Sixers. Even with Ben Simmons out, Embiid’s sheer size was always going to be a tough matchup for Boston and in Game 1, it took a real team effort defensively to limit his touches and production after a perfect 5-for-5 start in the first quarter. And while Simmons is by all accounts an All-Star guard and potent in transition offensively, the biggest impact of his injury for Philadelphia comes on the defensive end, where he was their primary matchup for Jayson Tatum throughout the regular season. He was the only one on the Sixers roster who had the size, length, and athleticism to keep up with Tatum, and his absence put an even bigger onus on Embiid to cover the paint for his teammates.
Like many other teams with behemoth bigs, the Sixers run “drop” coverage against the pick-and-roll where their guards funnel ball-handlers towards Embiid who uses his size to deter and block shots at the rim. The intimidation factor is real. On the year, no player has had a bigger impact on opponent shot selection than him; opponents increase their shot frequency at the rim by a whopping 8.3% when Embiid isn’t on the court compared to when he is, per Cleaning the Glass. For Boston, getting Joel out of the paint was always going to be crucial to opening up the lane.
From the get go, it was clear that Embiid was content to let Daniel Theis have the ball above the break. On the Celtics’ first possession, Theis walked into a wide-open three and, though he missed the rim entirely on that first attempt, it was encouraging to see him take two more in the first quarter. It’s the same coverage that Milwaukee uses with Brook Lopez and, after the bubble opener against the Bucks, I wrote about how the Theis pick-and-pop could be crucial if the teams met again. That goes for this series too, as Embiid operates under many of the same principles as Lopez does for Milwaukee.
With Embiid sitting in the paint and the gravity of the Celtics ball-handlers in Tatum, Walker, and even Hayward and Smart, shots like the one below will be open all series long, and it is crucial that Theis continues to take them to try and keep the defense honest. While Kanter and Robert Williams provide other sorts of threats offensively, neither can come close to the floor spacing of Theis, and Embiid can sag off even more when they are in the game.
In a recent article in The Athletic, Eric Nehm sat down with Brook Lopez to discuss some of the nuances in the drop coverage, one of which is that defensive 3-second violations can’t be called if your man has the ball. Lopez talked about how he is able to take advantage of that by sitting deep in the paint anytime his man is a non-shooter and has the ball out on the perimeter, and Embiid was able to do the same.
With Timelord in the game, Embiid knows he doesn’t have to worry at all about him shooting and, when Williams has the ball at the top of the key, Embiid is able to aggressively help on Tatum in the post and force a difficult shot.
But, as the game wore on, Theis was looking less and less for his own shot and, while you obviously wouldn’t want him to be chucking up ten 3’s, some increased aggressiveness would force Embiid’s hand a little more. On this possession, in the third quarter, you can see how Embiid can tell that Theis isn’t looking at the basket, so he’s able to sit back in the paint and call out the play to the point of attack defender in Alec Burks, eventually forcing a tough Smart behind-the-back which leads to a Theis heave.
Of course, there is a balance between shooting too much and facilitating for others, and with Embiid dropping, it also opens up opportunities for Theis to create open shots for others on the team through DHO’s. Since Embiid is sitting back, if Theis can connect on the screen, it can create open jump shots for the Celtics.
When talking about Theis’ shot selection earlier in the restart, coach Brad Stevens said, “I think he balances it really well. He doesn’t just chuck it all night…he is more than capable of making it but he also knows when to flip it to a guard that is behind him and that guard ends up getting the shot because nobody’s on Theis.”
While Theis has done a great job of getting involved and keeping the offense moving, some increased aggressiveness in shooting the ball from deep would open up the lane and create ample opportunities for his teammates. That could be the difference in the playoffs against teams like Philadelphia, Toronto, and Milwaukee.