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The matador and the bull: is a more aggressive Joel Embiid playing into the Celtics hands?

After a Game 1 disappearing act, the Philly big man has vowed to be more aggressive.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics - Game One Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Brad Stevens has never been a big believer in posting up. Here’s a snippet from a conversation he had with then Grantland’s Zach Lowe:

LOWE: Analytics folks say the post-up, or at least a post-up shot, is a low-efficiency play. But there’s a way to reconcile that, right?

STEVENS: There are two ways to get inside-out: driving or posting.

LOWE: In other words: The post-up is more a vehicle for passing and other shots, rather than necessarily for a post-up shot itself?

STEVENS: It’s a vehicle for playing inside-out. That’s right.

That thinking has permeated throughout the league and the modern NBA. The Celtics, for example, only run it 4% of the time. Most teams get around 4 to 8 points from it. Philadelphia, on the other hand, has the best back-to-the-basket player in the league.

Joel Embiid was the most effective post player during the regular season. Per Synergy, he ranks in the 90.3 percentile in post ups, scoring 1.10 points per possession on 8.3 possessions per game. That’s the second highest scoring efficiency from the post in the last five years (five-possession minimum).

But despite those numbers, even 76ers head coach Brett Brown isn’t a big believer. After their Game 1 loss, Brown bristled at the idea that Embiid should have been force fed in the post after going 5-for-5 (with three turnovers) in the first quarter. “I don’t agree with you. Part of our turnovers came from getting stood up and trying to post. Part of our turnovers came when we did post, we weren’t crisp passing out of the post. This is the double-edged sword where you have to figure out what line do you want to walk? Because the examples I just gave are true.”

For Brad Stevens and the Celtics, they’re trying to defend in that gray area, too. Philosophically, Stevens might invite a hundred possessions on the block for an entire game, but Embiid is still Embiid.

It doesn’t seem like Boston is necessarily trying to limit Embiid’s shot attempts. Instead, they’re looking to speed up his decision-making. Given enough time, he can bang in the post and eventually get a comfortable look around the rim. Pressure him and he might panic and struggle to cut either the red wire or blue wire or neither and the Sixers’ offense implodes.

Traditionally, this is what most double teams might look like. Embiid has the entire side of the floor to work with against Daniel Theis. As soon as he starts backing down, Gordon Hayward, the closest help defender, digs down on Embiid’s dribble to force him to pick it up, take a quick shot, or kick out. Hayward gets a piece of the ball and kicks off the fast break.

That’s obviously the most ideal outcome, but not necessarily the intention. A hard double team like that forces the defense to play 3-on-4 and gives Embiid the chance to rotate the ball to an open shooter. But with these quick digs, the aim is really to get Embiid to 1) pick up his dribble farther away from the basket and 2) recover quick enough to the open man.

Philly opened the game getting Embiid in the post just outside of the key. Tatum chips in, but never commits to a full trap. Embiid hits the sweeping hook several steps outside of the restricted area and the Celtics will live with that shot.

Enes Kanter is the most capable defender with Embiid on the block. Even still, the Celtics want to make Embiid as uncomfortable as possible. Marcus Smart makes two swipes at the ball until Embiid picks up his dribble twelve feet away from the rim without a foot in the paint. Instead of trapping him, Smart closes out on Josh Richardson and contests the 3.

To mix things up, Boston brought the pressure from different angles and at inopportune times.

In a zone look, Jayson Tatum comes off the baseline to force Embiid to give up the ball. Generally, the double would usually come from the top side from Kemba Walker.

In the fourth quarter, Embiid starts to pick up the pace and anticipate the double. Tatum doesn’t get a hand on the ball, but as soon as Embiid drops his shoulder and spins, he’s there as a second defender to contest the hook.

The pressure clearly frustrated Embiid and Brett Brown is aware that they can’t heavily rely on JoJo on the block. “I feel like when you study the tape, they bend you over, they bring the pressure.....they smothered him from that angle,” he said of the Celtics’ pressure from the wing to the block. “Anything that is slow, anything that is static, it’s easier to guard him.”

To his credit, Embiid has vowed to be more aggressive on Wednesday, but Brown doesn’t want to play “smashmouth, bully ball” exclusively, citing several of the team’s eighteen turnovers in Game 1 came from the post:

There’s no doubt that we want to get Jo the ball in different floor spots. It doesn’t have to always be bully ball at the nail, where it’s just a fistfight and everything gets stuck in mud. It can be at the nail, it can be pick-and-roll, it can be putting Alec Burks and Joel in a two-man game and getting them out of a roll.

Putting Embiid in motion could play into Boston’s hands. Comparatively speaking, he’s an ineffective role man (26.7 percentile, 0.95 points per possession), an average jump shooter (40.2% from the mid-range), and meh behind the arc (33.1%).

Before Game 1, the Boston whooped Philadelphia 116-95 after dropping their first two games against the 76ers. Embiid started that game in similar fashion with a deep post look on Theis; he’d miss his next ten shots with many of them coming from outside of the paint. The playoffs are all about adjustments, but after two games and 198 days between them, the Celtics have so far figured Embiid out.

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