“We started out with the game plan that we wanted to guard him one-on-one with heavy digs. And he just took advantage of those matchups.” Those were the words of a seemingly disheartened Jaylen Brown shortly after the Philadelphia 76ers dispatched the Boston Celtics on their home court.
While the Sixers certainly put in a team effort against Boston, the truth is that Joel Embiid is the reason they won this game. Flashes of individual brilliance, some stellar physical play, and a lack of execution from the Celtics all amalgamated to create a monster.
When re-watching the game, it was tough to spot many of the “heavy digs” Brown had mentioned. Sure, there were some here and there, but those predominately came when guards found themselves switched onto the dominant big man, or when Embiid decided to put the ball on the floor in the mid-post area. Still, even with good post position, help defense was often lacking.
The point of a plan, even one you end up deviating from, is to execute it to your best ability. Of course, we’ve all been there, and with New Year's Eve right around the corner, a lot of us will be back there very soon. “I’m going on a diet,” but two days later, you’re ordering a pizza, but at least you went at it full throttle for those two days. The above play is one of Embiid’s first touches on offense, and a hard dig is nowhere to be seen.
A dig is usually designed to force the opposing player to pick up his dribble, and on this play, that wouldn’t have resulted in much being different. But it does give you an extra body in Embiid’s shooting space, and it most certainly provides added pressure on the shot. Deviating from the plan so early is a worrying sign.
And then, via some telepathic genius, Doc Rivers countered Ime Udoka’s game plan before it even got off the ground, placing Embiid onto the perimeter as a pick-and-pop threat, where sending extra help was signing your own death warrant. Of course, when you have a three-point shooting big, and the opposing center is limited to drop coverage, you take full advantage.
And here’s where things started to go awry for the Celtics. Unfortunately, the Sixers figured things out very quickly, and Boston found themselves leaving the 35.7% three-point shooting big open from deep far too often.
Sure, you can say that Smart’s defensive pressure forced the pass, but this lock-and-trail defense with the big man in drop has been an issue for the Celtics for a couple of weeks no. It just so happens that against Philadelphia, the big man could burn them for their mistakes.
In fact, 62.9% of all Embiid’s shot attempts against the Celtics came with a defender further than four feet away from him. When the opposing team’s best player is shooting over half of their shots without a hand in their face, you know your scheme isn’t working.
“He got going pretty much a lot of the second half, but we were living with the contested twos and making plays there. Started going after him more in the fourth quarter, once we got Curry under control, a little bit better there. At the end, I think our rotations were a little bit slow behind that, and we were pretty much gonna take the ball out of his hands, we had forced a few turnovers on prior plays,” Udoka explained when asked about Embiid’s scoring opportunities.
Let’s do some quick math here. Embiid has a 57.4 true shooting percentage, he took 27 shots against the Celtics, so approximately 16 of them were open. Let's round down to 9 makes based on his TS%, that’s a minimum of 18 points you’re essentially gifting him by either not closing out, or rotating too slowly.
Of course, we’re talking about one of the best big men in the NBA, so even when you do everything right, there’s no guarantee he’ll miss the shot.
How many 7-foot ballers do you know who can hit a step-back fade-away right in a defender's face with a one-point game and less than a minute remaining in regulation? You don’t get to be labeled a star without having star-like qualities, and Embiid going supernova is undoubtedly a star-like quality.
And then you have the butterfly effect of when a scorer is cooking. Players become so enamored with what the hot hand is doing, that others begin to seep through the cracks, leading to easy buckets you usually wouldn’t allow.
All this isn’t to say that Boston did a bad job guarding the Sixers’ MVP candidate. At times, the Celtics were denying Embiid the ball or forcing turnovers when he tried to force a move, but those moments were fleeting, and mediocrity doesn’t get the job done when facing players at the NBA level.
Let’s be fair here. The Celtics would never have dreamed of playing Enes Freedom for 40 minutes if their hand wasn’t forced, and Bruno Fernando likely doesn’t see the floor unless the game goes to garbage time. Boston, like many other teams around the league, is playing with the hand they’ve been dealt.
It’s unfortunate that Al Horford, Grant Williams, and Robert Williams were unavailable for this game, as each of those guys would have added a new dimension to the Celtics defense, and likely have stemmed the bleeding before it became threatening. While the loss will hurt, and questions will inevitably be raised about the Celtics game plan, it’s worth remembering that the team’s 4th string center played 40 minutes against one of the league’s premier centers.
The Celtics executed their defensive plan and held Embiid to a bunch of mid-range shots. That most likely would have been the strategy with Horford and Williams in the mix, too. On Monday night, Embiid made tough shot after tough shot and really, you just have to tip your hat to Embiid and move on to the next game with the Celtics visit Philadelphia in just over three weeks.