Through three games, Joel Embiid is averaging 30 points and 13 rebounds per game. These are the playoffs and those are gaudy numbers.
Surrounding Embiid is a sea of poor shooters. The Sixers are 23-for-87 (26.4 percent) from deep, which further collapses the defense around him. There’s simply not enough offense from other positions that, even with Embiid’s stellar performances, the Sixers may never score enough to beat Boston.
But Embiid has been far from efficient. He’s barely over 50 percent shooting from 2-point range, has 11 turnovers through three games, and is clearly stifled by the lineups and lack of spot-up options around him.
Credit belongs with Brad Stevens and the entire Celtics staff for how they’ve used the subpar spacing within Philadelphia’s offense to build help around Embiid. The key to their success has been throwing numerous different looks at the star so he never gets comfortable, instead forcing a cat-and-mouse game with Boston’s help defenders that limits the creativity and slashing ability of his teammates.
Most of Embiid’s offense is predicated on deep post touches and positions. His size and physicality allows him to carve out space before a pass is throw to him. The immoveable force, he kills opponents with early burials, where there’s little hope of nudging him off his spots.
Daniel Theis found this out the hard way at the start of Game 1, completely outmuscled within five feet of the basket. Like any defense, the Celtics can provide help for Theis whenever they see the play developing. Simple plays where the Sixers walk the ball up, stare down JoJo in the post and try to throw it in immediately are met with preparation by all five Celtics.
Philly’s most successful moments came from Embiid gaining deep position when rolling after a ball screen. An unsuspecting Theis would get ducked in upon and sealed to one side of Embiid’s body. The Sixers then swung the ball to the side Embiid is open on, and with his physicality in the middle of the lane, no help can arrive:
Stevens came prepared for such issues. Increasingly, the C’s have begun to ice side ball screens, forcing handlers to the baseline and preventing Embiid from a roll to the middle. On high or middle screens, the Celtics dig in heavily from the weak side, encouraging kicks to the corner while simultaneously preventing easy entry passes to the All-Star center:
Nonsensical backdoor cuts, like the one made above by Matisse Thybulle, crush their spacing and give Embiid a lack of options elsewhere. Small play killers like that contributed to Thybulle being removed from the starting lineup in favor of Al Horford and subsequently logging only nine minutes in Game 3.
The goal when guarding an All-Star post player isn’t to necessarily eliminate their scoring, but to raise the degree of difficulty on every one of their attempts. There are a few ways to do that. First, it’s incumbent upon the primary defender to “win the block,” being the aggressor and a physical presence that makes Embiid catch the ball farther than his desired location. If Embiid is twelve feet from the basket instead of six, the Celtics’ helpers have time to swarm and provide assistance.
The second key comes from varying where the help comes from. Predictability and consistency are easy to dice up. Don’t let a guy who thrives on comfort get comfortable and the element of surprise is always on your side.
More times than not, the Celtics are shadowing the post hard from the strong side, digging down off the entry passer and crowding Embiid’s dribble. There’s no room for him to go middle while help defenders sit in his airspace, begging him to kick it out to an open perimeter teammate.
Embiid then has two choices: take a mid-range jumper or roll the dice and trust the process with his teammates on the kick out:
Marcus Smart in particular has been great at this cat-and-mouse game, impactful with his digs and intentional with his every move. By sitting so far at or below the elbow, the Celtics are dictating how Embiid is forced to try and score.
To change the look on occasion, the Celtics have mixed in some exaggerated weak-side help. Kemba Walker and Brad Wanamaker are usually the blitzers sent to bring a trap, letting their assignment clear to the weak side and standing on the block directly behind Philly’s top scorer.
Boston typically goes to this off a baseline inbound play, where the Sixers try to clear out an entire side of the floor for Embiid to go to work. It doesn’t work, as the help from a Celtics point guard forces a tough middle jumper or a pass out of the post:
The key to late-game execution is throwing something completely new at your opponent. Finally in a close fourth quarter of Game 3, the Celtics broke glass in case of emergency. Down two under two minutes to go, they decided to trap Embiid from the top side with Jayson Tatum.
Once the trap arrived, Embiid was a bit surprised by the quick assault he was under and threw a cross court skip. Smart was on the prowl and ready to jump on the pass, leading to a transition sequence that set off a 10-0 Celtics run to close the game:
Brilliant help from Smart, unbelievable recognition of the play call and a gutsy adjustment by Stevens to bring the trap.
Speaking of adjustments, I’m surprised the Sixers haven’t tried a few more hi-lo sets involving Al Horford and Embiid. Getting the ball into the middle of the floor makes double-teaming incredibly difficult - nobody knows which side of the floor help should come from. Horford shot a mere 27.8 percent on corner treys this year, making him fairly ineffective when standing weak side. Place him on the opposite block waiting for an offensive rebounding chance and he brings another body to the lane to stifle Embiid.
Brett Brown has to try something with Horford in the middle of the floor above Embiid. As a quick aside, Brown isn’t responsible for the Sixers’ struggles. He didn’t construct the roster and has to play the hand he’s dealt. But he still hasn’t played it well, and the Sixers have yet to find an answer to creating more offense other than hoping the shots finally fall.
An initial hi-lo set they open games with, and opened the series with, typically places the ball in Embiid’s hands with deep position for quick scores. The set is clunky and somewhat predictable, but it accomplishes its goal, and has been one the Sixers go-to’s in the regular season:
Perhaps Brown’s reticence to attempt a play like this again has been the strong defense from the Celtics in Games 2 and 3 to render these sets inert. Whenever a hi-lo set like this is detected, Theis will go into a full front on Embiid. As he stands between the two Sixers bigs, Boston increases their pressure on the ball and rides out Joel’s physical duck-ins, knowing he only has three seconds to get the ball before he’s required to relocate to the block.
Since Game 1, the Sixers haven’t gotten a lot of mileage out of Horford as an entry passer:
Philly is damned if they do, damned if they don’t with Horford. There’s no great place to put him when Embiid is posting, but he’s not a strong enough scorer to play through. Their pairing plays right into the Celtics hands: they have an easier time defending Embiid while gaining a speed advantage to exploit on the other end, too.
In essence, that’s been the entire series for Philly. No matchup around Embiid plays in their favor, especially when Tobias Harris hasn’t made a trey and Furkan Korkmaz is colder than a stepmother’s kiss. Until Philly’s role players prove capable of making shots in bunches and getting hot enough to force a chance, Boston has no incentive to change their defense.
Stevens built a 3-0 series lead by giving Embiid different looks throughout the game, toggling between strong and weak-side helpers and keying in on the few hi-lo sets that crushed them for quick buckets. Give Theis and Enes Kanter their due for winning the battle for the block and pushing Embiid to the mid-post. Credit Smart, Walker, and the whole backcourt who are attentive, active, and impactful with their rotations.
It’s been 5-on-1 the whole series. That can’t change now.