In the words of long-time sportscaster Dan Patrick, “You can’t stop him. You can only hope to contain him.”
Those eleven words perfectly described Joel Embiid on Tuesday night, as the Boston Celtics were faced with the harrowing task of slowing down the Philadelphia 76ers big man.
Embiid ended the night with 52 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists, leading the 76ers to a hard-fought victory and helping them avoid a season sweep at the hands of Boston.
“I think the whole league’s trying to figure that out right now,” Derrick White said when asked about how to stop Embiid. “So, if you got any ideas, I think every other NBA team would like to know.”
The 76ers big man has been on a warpath this season, and after finishing second in MVP voting for two straight seasons, he’s eyeing the award that has alluded him for so long. Tuesday night was a perfect example of why he may finally capture the trophy this season.
But while his 52 points were enough to earn the win, the Celtics still succeeded at some aspects of Patrick’s famous phrase.
“We did exactly what [we wanted to],” said head coach Joe Mazzulla. “We made an adjustment, they made us pay. He didn’t get transition [opportunities, and] we didn’t foul him.”
How can a team get “exactly” what they want and still let a player score 52 points? Well, the Celtics had to pick and choose their battles. Unfortunately, Embiid decided to win any battle the Celtics chose to take.
For the majority of the game, Boston forced Embiid to settle for mid-range jump shots and fadeaways just outside of the paint. Rather than give up the post, they held him at bay, making him make shots in order to get his buckets. On most days, that’s a huge win. But on Tuesday, Embiid made the shots.
Of his 25 field goal attempts, 17 of them were either jump shots or fadeaways, meaning the Celtics held him to just eight shots in the paint (not including plays where he was fouled). However, of the 17 jumpers he took, he made 12 of them.
“If [PJ] Tucker doesn’t make those three threes, it’s a completely different game. Or if we let Embiid keep going, maybe he misses a couple. You don’t know,” explained Mazzulla. “But I thought our guys competed. I thought they were very detailed in keeping him off the free-throw line. I thought he just had a great night, and we weren’t tremendous on the offensive end like we normally are.”
In a league with as many talented players as the NBA, good defense won’t always win.
Boston has a top-five defense in the league, Al Horford has been elite when it’s come to defending Embiid over the years and, including the postseason, Embiid is just 11-20 against the Celtics throughout his career.
On Tuesday night, none of that matters.
Embiid entered a zone, picked his spots, and ripped Boston’s defense to shreds. No matter who the Celtics threw at him, no matter how many times they doubled, and no matter how much havoc they caused around him, Embiid was unstoppable.
“I mean, s***, I wasn’t guarding him, but he had a good game, obviously,” Jayson Tatum said with a smirk. “He willed his team to a victory.”
And yet, despite Embiid’s monster night, Philadelphia only earned a two-point victory. With no Jaylen Brown, no Robert Williams, and a man on a mission on the opposite bench, Boston still almost pulled out a win.
So, heading into a potential playoff series against Embiid and the 76ers, all the Celtics can do is pick their battles and let the chips will fall where they may.