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Joel Embiid is back and the Celtics still can’t stop him

Embiid’s MVP case might as well have been written by the Celtics at this point.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The most fascinating thing about the song Maria from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music is the fact that what makes Maria such a delight is what makes her, quote-unquote, a problem. Therefore, trying to solve a problem like Maria would mean reconfiguring her into something non-Marian. You see, Maria is as far-removed from nunnery as you can be; her trouble is that she is, in fact, a nun. She wishes to sing and dance and behave freely, like a bird with no flight path. Her fellow nuns compare her to a uncontrollably crashing wave– “How do you keep a wave upon the sand?” I think my favorite line from the song is this: “How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?”

Therein lies the true crux of the tune. How do you solve a problem like Maria? You can’t.

Sometimes, you can’t solve a problem, no matter what – or who – you throw at it. Which might be why no team, least of all the Boston Celtics, has been able to stop Joel Embiid this season. If we were to make a list of the most moonbeam-ish players in the NBA, it’d be hard to leave Embiid out of the top two. (Nikola Jokic might have to be at the top, given the whole unicorn aesthetic doesn’t veer that far from that of a moonbeam.) He’s freeway overpass with a post-game, a seven-foot, 280-pounder with arms the size of the Liberty Bell. “A flibbertijibbet! A will-o’-the-wisp!”

Evidently, the Celtics don’t do well with the most monstrous of flibbertijibbets, so much so that Embiid has done enough in three games against them this season to detail his entire MVP campaign. Against all opponents this year, he’s averaging 29.9 points on 52.1-percent shooting per contest. Against the Celtics, he averages 38.3 on 60.4-percent shooting (he’s gone for 42, 38, and 35 in the three respective matchups). The Sixers have won said games by an average of 10 points.

But perhaps the most alarming stat – startling, disconcerting, various other negative synonyms – comes in the form of his free throw attempts. His makes go without question, as his percentage hardly varies in contests against the rest of the league as opposed to against the Celtics. But he attempts roughly seven more free throws against Boston than his season average, jumping to 18.7 per game from 11.8. In terms of fouls drawn per game, Embiid is boasting a career-high 7.97 this season, per PBP Stats, but against the Celtics? That total shoots up to 11.3, almost seven more fouls than the next Sixer (Ben Simmons, 4.7). If you can’t beat him… foul him?

It’s exactly what the Celtics have done, to undesirable returns. With Tristan Thompson maintaining a residency on the bench due to a lifetime deal with the league’s health and safety protocols and Daniel Theis having been traded to Chicago, the Celtics center rotation is 1) thinner, and 2) at constant risk of being forced to give Tacko Fall real minutes. Take last night: by the time there were seven minutes remaining in the first quarter, Robert Williams had already – and maybe questionably – been nicked with his second foul. Brad Stevens, because he has no other choice at this point, subbed in Luke Kornet, who Embiid immediately reduced to rubble.

To frame Kornet’s night in a light that headlines this play would do it a grave injustice; he did improve, not stopping Embiid, but at least contributing to the fleeting effort that is containing him. But to frame Embiid’s night in a way that places this play at the top of the highlight reel is to properly epitomize the ease with which he tends to create for himself against the Celtics. And it particularly comes on face-up drives like in the clip above. He has driven 4.3 times per game against the Celtics this season, made his shots following the drive 87.5% of the time, and scored 138.5% of his points, per Second Spectrum tracking data. If he’s driving, he’s bound to score. Which is likely why defenses resort to hacking him on the way, which he responds to by – more than likely – draining two free throws. Two points can come in many forms.

Embiid has improved pretty steadily over the course of his career, and though his attempt to be as prolific a three-point shooter as he is a post presence drives me to the point of developing a pulmonary embolism, he’s learned to use his length and patience in ways that will give a defense fits.

Here, he keeps Williams on his back, stretches one-half of his 7-foot-6 wingspan toward the sideline and calls for the ball. When Williams attempts to jump the passing lane (and does so off balance), Embiid shuffles back a foot or so, catches the lob pass from Curry, and drives to the lane. Williams scrambles back to Embiid, doesn’t think twice about leaping toward what he hopes is a block, but thanks to a pump fake, meets Embiid’s body in the process. Embiid’s pump fakes on the perimeter are painstakingly obvious, therefore don’t lead to a ton of jumping defenders, but in the post, he’s always a threat to score.

We’re hardly two minutes into the game, and Embiid has figured out exactly how to outwork Williams and get him into foul trouble. Before the game, the most important thing Stevens alluded to when it came to Williams’ performance was not getting in foul trouble. “The biggest thing for Rob is that he needs to work as hard as he can before the catch, and then he needs to play without fouling.” Williams fouled out of this game; two of those fouls came against Embiid. It was a wake-up call for Timelord, who thanks to Embiid’s play and a few over-ambitious defensive efforts, looked more like Time-on-the-bench Lord. (I’ll see myself out.)

Though they were most certainly at his mercy for much of the game, the Celtics did show some signs of knowing how, if nothing else, to force another Sixer to beat them. The problem? Most of the other Sixers can do exactly that just fine. It’s quick, but watch how Williams and Tatum swarm Embiid at the top of the below clip. It’s good defense... if the rest of the Celtics aren’t desperately ball-watching, and if anyone knew exactly what their next defensive rotation should be, and if Tatum can snap back into position on his original assignment following the double-team. In fact, every help assignment looks to have been miscommunicated, or this is just a pathetic defensive position from a team that has struggled to properly react to savvy ball movement all season.

The below effort is much better, across the board. Smart fouls Embiid, rendering the trap useless, but had he not, there’s a high likelihood that the Celtics would have either forced a turnover or a tough shot with minimal time left on the shot clock.

Then again, it’s hard to say “well, if that wasn’t a foul” when it was, in fact, a foul, albeit a 50-50 one. It’s a least a window into what can work, if — there it is again — the Celtics can stop fouling Embiid. Attacking Embiid’s weak side and forcing the trap is the best case scenario against a player like Embiid, one that you can’t put on the free throw line nor leave open on the perimeter. With other bigs, you might be happy giving up a jumper, whether a three, a fadeaway, what have you. Not Embiid, who has made 58.8 percent of his mid-range shots against Boston this season, and 57.9 percent of his pull-ups, per Second Spectrum. Even when the defender is in good defensive possession, Embiid is stronger, and can create a Grand Canyon’s-worth of space with one shoulder bump. It hasn’t mattered who’s guarding him either.

Here’s Tristan Thompson back when the Celtics visited Philadelphia on Jan. 20, looking like me when I played against Anthony Lamb in high school.

And here’s Daniel Theis in that same game, being backed into the post like a cardboard cutout of a helpless matador.

Fast forward to last night’s effort, where the Celtics forced themselves into one of two problems: they either fouled Embiid, or had already been forced into foul trouble by Embiid to the point where they — particularly Robert Williams — exercised caution and sagged off. They might as well have handed him a voucher: “Free points at checkout with every inch of space.”

And just to add insult to injury, I see your sagging defense, and raise you hopeless and defenseless.

Toward the end of the TNT broadcast, as Ian Eagle and Reggie Miller marveled at yet another dominating performance from Embiid, Miller mentioned the humongous brace on the center’s left leg. (You thought Embiid’s arms were the size of the Liberty Bell?) The brace serves as a reminder that Embiid missed 10 games with a bone bruise in that knee, an injury that many claimed might cost him a shot at the MVP award he arguably deserves. But it’s what Eagle said in response to Miller’s shock at the sheer girth of this brace that really tells the story: “There’s been some rust for Embiid, but his rust is not as severe as most player’s rust.”

It’s so non-severe that, against the Celtics, it hardly looks like rust at all. For Williams and Kornet — Boston’s de facto center duo for the time being — this was the ultimate test in playoff preparation, and for Williams, it was a test to see how he may fare against the league’s elite bigs, half-hobbled or not. To say the least, they failed. Embiid tuned them up, full stop. So, if you’re curious how you can solve a problem like Joel Embiid, best ask another team. Nobody can hold a moonbeam in their hand, but it’s the Celtics who have yet to come close.

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