Without Robert Williams and Al Horford available, the Celtics front court was depleted against arguably the best big man in the game in Joel Embiid (unless, of course, you’re a Boston media member voting for the All-Star Game). To combat those absences, head coach Joe Mazzulla started Blake Griffin and Grant Williams at the 4 and 5. Offensively, they combined for 30 points including 9-for-14 from behind the arc to force Embiid away from the rim.
Defensively, it was a different story.
Per the NBA’s CourtOptix tracking data, Joel Embiid is the eighth most doubled player in the league, averaging over 14 doubles per game. That’s nearly a third of the big man’s possessions. On Wednesday night, Boston mixed up their defense on Embiid, playing him in single coverage and throwing in double teams from different angles.
To start, even when Boston did throw two big defenders at Embiid, he scored. He’s just that good. He finished with 28 points on 11-of-21 shooting, but just one assist and two turnovers. That might have been the key right there. Embiid logs nearly six potential assists a night to three-pointers, but with the Celtics doubling from both above the break and the baseline, it didn’t give Embiid a consistent target all night.
Tobias Harris has been a consistent shooter all season, making 37.4% of his threes. However, that above-the-break triple is the least efficient spot on the floor, so it’s Derrick White here doubling Embiid as he tries to turn into the paint from a post-up.
On the ensuing possession, P.J. Tucker cuts through the paint and it’s Grant Williams this time coming to add another body on Embiid.
And yet again, it’s Jaylen Brown sinking in on the strong side corner trying to get Embiid to take a bad shot or give up the rock. Same spot on the floor, three different players from three different areas of the floor.
Despite the 4th highest shooting percentage from behind the arc (38.4%), they’re not exactly a high volume three-point shooting team. By doubling Embiid late in the clock, they dared Philadelphia to beat them on the perimeter. It worked. Boston outscored them by 27 points from 3 with the 76ers making just 10 of their 31 shots.
In the second half, Mazzulla dialed back the doubles and opted to use single coverage on Embiid. Embiid shot 8-of-12 in the first half and like most games against him, the marathon of 48 minutes tires him.
Big credit to Grant here. In last year’s playoffs, he sparkled as a defender against the beasts of the East: Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Bam Adebayo. He didn’t get a chance against Embiid, but last night, he bothered him just enough to get the win. Williams defended Embiid for the balance of the night (nine minutes and nearly 40 possessions) and he hit 6 of his 13 shots and coughed up two turnovers. In the second half, Embiid hit just three of his nine shots.
Oh, and this happened on Philly’s final meaningful possession:
Who had Payton Pritchard shutting down Embiid on their bingo card?
The 76ers owned the 7th most efficient offense in the NBA heading into their second meeting in Boston, scoring 120.1 points a night during their 13-4 stretch since the turn of the year. But against a depleted Celtics, they mustered just 99 points on 44.6% shooting. With a healthy roster, it’ll be curious what Mazzulla does the next time. The Celtics travel to Philadelphia after the All-Star break on February 25th with — fingers crossed — a full complement of players to face Embiid again.