Joel Embiid stared into the Zoom camera following a second straight loss that left his defensive unit lifeless in the second half. He asserted things need to change, then pointed to something more concrete. It’s yet another example that the Philadelphia 76ers lacking cohesion that rings of Kyrie Irving questioning the Celtics not trapping Kemba Walker after a loss to the Hornets.
“They want me to stay back on the pick-and-rolls and protect the basket, but they’ve just been coming up and making a lot of threes,” Embiid said. “It feels too easy.”
The 76ers may lack the talent and two-way personnel without Ben Simmons to win a game against the Boston Celtics. Brett Brown’s decision to drop Embiid against the Celtics’ top-ranked shooting defense is perplexing nonetheless, for anyone who’s watched Boston’s offense and Philadelphia’s Defensive Player of the Year-caliber center.
In Game 2, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker combined to shoot 20-for-36, some on spot-ups around screens as Embiid stood listlessly in the paint.
Only the Mavericks and Rockets ball-handlers shot a higher percentage than the Celtics’ 51.7 effective FG% out of the pick-and-roll this season. Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter, and Robert Williams serve as perfect roll men out of the coverage, but Theis only took five shot attempts in Game 2. Kanter only shot 63% at the rim this year.
Defending the pick-and-roll is no easy task, especially when Jaylen Brown adeptly cuts on the back line if Embiid moves too high to help. Though the Sixers gained something when Gordon Hayward went down, as long as they can seal up Brown’s off-ball shooting, they can direct the ball to Marcus Smart, Grant Williams, and Semi Ojeleye for open threes. All three shot inconsistently this season.
No matter how the 76ers execute help and traps when Tatum dances around a screen, or when Walker breaks into his mid-range sweet spot, it’ll surely allow Philadelphia to compete better than what we watched in Game 2.
“The obvious answer is to bring (Joel) out of the paint, and bring (Joel) up so there’s some level of pressure,” Brown said. “The punishment behind it is real. Rollers and scrambles and so on. I think that if you look at how many baskets they scored out of the pick-and-roll as far as threes go, I think Tatum had three and Kemba had one ... I feel like in the second half we did do that with some success, but it wasn’t enough.”
While it’s true many of Tatum’s threes came in other circumstances like in transition and isolation, Walker’s pull-up twos did no less damage. Even in today’s game of emphasizing the three and shots at the rim, allowing an elite mid-range shooter to pull-up uncontested points to a defense that doesn’t trust its rotation abilities.
The 76ers never formulated an effective role for Al Horford, to the point where one of the great defenders of our time looks occasionally lost defending back line cuts. Horford cannot simply be depended on to defend Tatum on perimeter switches at this point, and he and Embiid accordingly combine to rate -42.8 per 100 possessions in Game 1 and 2.
Philadelphia misses Simmons. The Celtics make everything they want to do excruciatingly hard, though it’s hard to ignore that they produced 128 points one day after losing Hayward. They built effective lineups with struggling shooters like Grant Williams and Romeo Langford.
Boston worked a +24 second quarter through Kanter’s minutes. Philadelphia, even with Embiid playing a drop defense, hangs its head so much that they can’t even stop plays like this Walker drive, which he’s rarely attempted in the bubble.
Brown may be right. Sending Embiid to attack shooters may do little to help the 76ers win this series. It will at least force the Celtics to adjust, perhaps grow uncomfortable for a moment in a game. To this point, Philadelphia drained hope from its fan base not by losing, but by not even trying to disrupt Boston with its defensive personnel that flashed potential on paper.
“Something has to change,” Embiid said again on Wednesday. At this point does Philly have any faith in itself to attempt it?