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Evaluating the Celtics’ defense of Joel Embiid in Game 4 loss

The Celtics had epic highs and tragic lows trying to slow down the MVP center.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

A truly terrifying NBA superstar will make an opposing defense abandon its principles to stop him. Joel Embiid created such a moment in the most important possession of the Philadelphia 76ers’ season to date when Jaylen Brown over-helped on him, resulting in the James Harden three-pointer that won Sunday’s overtime thriller against the Boston Celtics.

“No matter who was on me, I just figured I would go score,” Embiid said on the play. “As soon as I saw [Brown] help off the strong side corner, that was an easy play. The trust that we talked about all-season long … James just made a great shot.”

“Just a bad read,” Brown said. “That’s it. That’s a gamble at the wrong time. Big shot by James Harden, but that’s my fault. I take full accountability. Just a bad read.”

Brown’s decision will linger for at least the next twelve hours, but it was only one possession in another battle to contain this year’s MVP. Embiid wound up with 34 points, 13 rebounds and four assists against just two turnovers in the victory — but it took him 26 shots to get there.

At times, the Celtics appeared to have Embiid scrambling, and other times the roles reversed. What worked on defense Sunday, and what did Embiid still accomplish?

We can start the highlights with two words: Al Horford.

It’s been a challenging series for Boston’s veteran staple. But Horford had by far his best defensive performance in Game 4, punctuated by five blocks, including four on Embiid and three shown above in the last three minutes of regulation. It’s clear the Celtics trust him the most in single coverage; outside of Jaylen Brown digging during a drive, they didn’t bring full-on doubles or traps on Embiid when he was in the middle of the court.

This allowed Boston’s surrounding defenders to stay home on Philly’s shooters. The Sixers didn’t space the floor super well on these possessions and didn’t challenge the Celtics to cover a ton of ground. Embiid didn’t have available passing outlets and it left him to try and beat Horford on his A-game.

We even got to see Horford add a swat in help defense, when he altered a shot while Embiid tried to mismatch-hunt on Marcus Smart.

Things changed when he had an empty side all to himself.

Even with Horford guarding Embiid, the Celtics often brought a second defender over from the opposite side of the floor. The idea is that they can effectively double-team in these moments without conceding an open man; one defender can cover the space of two weak-side shooters.

In the first example, Smart leaves Georges Niang to go double-team, but since the Sixers are all stacked up on that side, Jayson Tatum can effectively block off both Niang and his own matchup (De’Anthony Melton).

The second example shows a similar design with Jaylen Brown briefly doubling, though he retreats and appears to be worried about leaving space open for a pass. Philadelphia is spread a bit further apart this time, so it’s a less effective double, and Embiid hits a gutsy fadeaway over Al Horford. Still a positive defensive possession but take note of that.

Embiid helped his MVP candidacy with consistent improvement as a passer, particularly out of double-teams. He had four assists on Sunday, and one dime to Niang stuck out.

Here, the 29-year-old has a mismatch opportunity on Grant Williams, and Robert Williams comes from the weak side to help. But Embiid recognizes the open passing lane to Niang and Malcolm Brogdon doesn’t zone up on that space in time. It’s a quick read and quick trigger that leads to three points.

That pass only happened once this game, but it’s happened in prior contests as well and during the regular season. If Embiid can spot these weak-side doubles and the windows of opportunity, the resulting shots can be dangerous for the Celtics.

It’s why they’re not constantly doubling him — which opens up more issues.

In the first clip, Embiid has an empty-corner isolation chance against Al Horford and no one comes to help (I think White should have here). Malcolm Brogdon doesn’t want to leave his man, no one else wants to leave theirs, and it leaves a rhythm face-up basket.

Second clip: Embiid has a mismatch with an empty corner against Grant Williams. Derrick White tries to shade over and help, but he doesn’t want to overcommit and leave Melton open one pass away. The 76ers are spread well, so nobody else wants to double and risk a kick-out pass for three. Embiid simply takes the matchup and scores.

This is the looping puzzle that leads to bad decisions like Brown’s in OT. He had to choose between Embiid attacking a mismatch to score or making a read and a pass. In hindsight, everyone knows Brown made the wrong choice — but it’s harder to process that in seconds, especially when this guy has made you pay in different ways all afternoon.

So what’s the right gameplan? Double-teaming Embiid can lead to turnovers and bad contested shots, but it can’t be too frequen, because he’ll figure out the plan and pass to open teammates. Let him go one-on-one against bad matchups and he’ll just score or get defenders in foul trouble. Horford and Robert Williams can’t be expected to battle him alone all series or they’ll commit fouls and (more importantly) be gassed, leaving them as contributors everywhere else.

The Celtics did about as well as they could containing Embiid in Game 4. Of course, it didn’t matter in a loss, but they have positives to build on. Embiid took only eight of 26 shots at the rim (making five) and went 3 for 9 from the short mid-range areas. If he’s making those tough long twos, you simply have to tip the cap.

Boston’s goal should be to throw all these different coverages at him in a confusing, unpredictable order for 2-3 more games. And when they do send extra defenders, the Celtics have to be laser-focused off the ball.

Sound exhausting? It is. Welcome to the heart of playoff basketball.

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