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The Embiid of it all

The 76ers star had MVP performances against the Celtics all year, but that was all by design.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Joel Embiid dominates the Celtics.

The numbers are undeniable. The likely MVP averaged nearly 37 points per game on 61% shooting and twelve trips to the line during the regular season. In their only win against Boston earlier this month, Embiid scored 52 points with 13 rebounds and six assists and the 76ers won by two.

However, in his very own words, “this is not a rivalry. I don’t know our record against them, but they always kick our @%$. This is not a rivalry.” Embiid is just 8-10 against Boston in the regular season and even worse in the playoffs at 1-8, including a sweep three years ago in the bubble.

Of course, Joel Embiid isn’t the only player that the Celtics need to worry about. Of course, James Harden deserves just about as much attention than Embiid does. Of course Doc Rivers raised a banner and will never have to pay for dinner at his favorite restaurant ever again in Boston. But if Philadelphia is going to stand a chance at breaking their recent losing streak to the Celtics, Embiid has to deliver.

During the majority of the games, Boston elected to play Embiid straight up and he delivered. He averaged a usage rate of 36% and for good reason. His 69.5% true shooting percentage was second only to P.J. Tucker. He was highly efficient in addition to be greatly depended on and more so, his approach evolved from their first meeting to kick off the season to his final masterpiece on April 4th. Here’s Embiid’s shot distribution over the course of 2022-2023:

Joel Embiid Shot Profile vs. Celtics 2022-2023

Date Restricted Area Paint Mid-Range Threes Free Throws
Date Restricted Area Paint Mid-Range Threes Free Throws
October 18 2/3 3/5 3/4 1/6 9
February 8 4/5 3/4 3/9 1/3 7
February 25 5/5 2/4 5/11 0/1 18
April 4 7/7 8/11 5/6 0/1 13

A few numbers jump off the page:

  • Embiid, who shot 33% from behind the arc this year, traded threes for restricted area looks. That level of discipline is why he’s widely considered to be the Most Valuable Player favorite.
  • With the Celtics rarely double teaming above the break, Embiid feasted in the mid-range. For the year, Embiid made 48.6% of his long-2’s. League average is 42%. Against Boston, he hit 16-of-30 (53.3%).
  • The free throws. If Embiid gets into double-digit attempts at the line, that’s an analytical margin that will keep head coach Joe Mazzulla up all night.

In Round 1, Brooklyn tried to keep the ball out of Embiid’s hands by constantly double teaming him and letting the other 76ers do their damage. In turn, he only averaged thirteen shots a game — seven fewer than in the regular season. His teammates stepped up though. Tyrese Maxey had 33 in Game 2. Tobias Harris scored 21 in a Game 3 blowout. Boston might throw an extra man at him from time to time (think low shot clock situations or if he’s turning into the paint off of low post position), but for the most part, they’ll stay home with their coverages.

So, if you’re a fan of Grant Williams and missed him against the Hawks, buy tickets for Monday and Wednesday at TD Garden. Naturally, the Boston big man that defended Embiid the most all year was Al Horford. But in the final two games in the City of Brotherly Love, it was Williams that drew the assignment most often. Truth be told, Embiid absolutely cooked Williams. In that final (meaningless) game at the beginning of April, he hit nine out of his ten shots with the self-proclaimed Batman as his closest defender.

It wasn’t Grant best night for sure, but like Horford, his speed and size give Mazzulla another option to continue to use single coverage on Embiid. If Williams can stay out of foul trouble and if Williams can force Embiid away from the basket with fadeaway jumpers and if Embiid grows frustrated and settles, that could be the difference between a 30-point night vs. a 40- to 50-point explosion and more importantly, a Celtics win and loss.

That’s the entire key to the second round. Remember when Jerry West won Finals MVP even though the Lakers lost to Bill Russell and the Celtics in seven games? Boston would be happy with the same formula against Philadelphia. Embiid’s health is obviously a wild card, but the Celtics gameplan against him won’t be.

All year, Mazzulla has played the numbers and he seems content allowing Embiid (and Harden) to get their numbers while keeping everybody else at bay. That was the approach against Trae Young and Dejounte Murray in Round 1 and will most likely be Boston’s approach in Round 2. Boston had the perimeter defenders and schemes to at least make it difficult for the Hawks. With Grant Williams most likely returning into the fold and even veteran Blake Griffin available to muck up The Process, they’ll now rely on their front court depth to check the opposing team’s best player.

For more on the series, check out CelticsBlog’s Keith Smith’s full second round preview up on the site.

DraftKings Odds

The Celtics are 10-point favorites for Game 1 and with Embiid’s availability in question, Boston’s odds of not just advancing to the conference finals (-450) but also representing the East in The Finals with presumably their toughest opponent limping into the second round has peaked at -240 according to our friends at DraftKings. Comparably, Philly has dropped to a +475.

If Embiid is out, here’s a quick single game parlay with more responsibility falling on the rest of the Sixers: 30+ points from Tyrese Maxey, 10+ assists from James Harden, and 12+ rebounds from Tobias Harris is a +5500 bet.

Check out DraftKings Sportsbook, the official sportsbook partner of SB Nation.

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