With Ben Simmons being injured, Celtics fans understand that Joel Embiid will be their biggest threat during this first round matchup. Embiid has been dominant against Boston before, leaving fans to wonder how Brad Stevens would choose to defend him. Would he send out the inexperienced Robert Williams? Trust in the vastly undersized yet hardworking Daniel Theis? Or, would he hold his breath and let Enes Kanter do Enes Kanter things?
Stevens opted for another route. He strategically deployed double teams when Embiid had the ball on the block or elsewhere in the paint. The goal? To force a kickout pass and have one of Philadelphia’s average to below-average shooters take a shot. If Joel powered through the double then both players would be there to contest. How did this pan out during Game 1 of the series?
There were many specific instances in which the Cs were able to double Embiid and cause havoc. Two resulted in steals. Below, Gordon Hayward beautifully demonstrates Stevens doubling/help method. He bounces between the paint and perimeter until he pounces in for the steal.
This next steal did not come during a post isolation. Rather, Jaylen Brown comes away with it as Embiid drives the lane after a pump fake. Notice how every single Celtic is in in the paint. Literally. Stevens is daring Philly to beat them from beyond the arc while limiting Joel’s paint shots.
Embiid committed five turnovers last night. Or, depending on how you look at it, Boston forced five turnovers and prevented 10-15 possible points. But not every double resulted in an error, as you will soon find out.
Forcing Embiid To Pass
Marcus Smart is gonna Marcus Smart, am I right? He did so during a post double against Embiid. What’s more, Smart disrupted Embiid to the point where he opted for a kickout pass. Fortunately, the shooter (Josh Richardson) is a streaky one and Smart was within striking distance of a contest. Stevens prefers for this shot to happen.
This next play truly displays the chemistry and cohesiveness of Boston’s defense. Tatum helps off of Matisse Thybulle because Embiid is in his sweet spot. Smart picks up Thybulle and the rest of the defenders cover the perimeter shooters. The ball ended up out of Embiid’s hands. Next game, look to see if Brett Brown spaces his shooters more to stretch Boston and make this play harder to defend.
Helping When Embiid Shoots
For the season, Embiid takes 5.2 post up attempts per game and nails 50.1 percent of them. This should have been exploited last night against weaker or smaller Celtic defenders. Although he had success right near the rim, Embiid did not repeatedly punish the Celtics there during the game.
In fact, two of his four at-rim makes came during drives or cuts that started with him catching the ball near the perimeter. When he did have good paint position, however, Boston was sure to make life difficult.
Above, Embiid receives the ball in a great location. Plus, he has to go against Kanter; someone who has surprisingly been a passable defender against Joel but also makes Cs fans cringe. Nonetheless, watch Jayson Tatum come in for the last second contest and force a short miss.
Next, Marcus Smart takes his turn. Once more, we find Kanter defending Embiid with Embiid looking to back his way to the rim. A tiny reach in by Smart causes just enough disruption for Embiid to lose some balance during his fadeaway. Plus, seeing two Celtic defenders flash towards him (Brown did so before Smart) might have caused Embiid to shoot earlier than he wanted to.
Did It Always Work?
No. If Boston is a hair too late when sending help then Embiid can hurt them. Consider Brad Wanamaker’s attempt to bother Embiid. Theis is simply to small to handle the Sixer’s behemoth. Wanamaker must gamble on the disruption earlier and trust in his teammates to cover him.
The Celtics know that Philadelphia can weaponize Embiid in this series. The Sixers were this close to coming away with a Game 1 upset. They held both the lead and momentum going into the fourth. So, why didn’t they come away with the win?
Embiid was great during his play. He made 12 trips to the line and shot over 50 percent from the floor. Yet, he took only 15 field goal attempts and 20 if you count the ones he was fouled on. His field goal attempt number needs to be higher in order to dominate. Stevens game plan worked just enough to stop Embiid from taking the amount of shots necessary to steal this game. Expect some counter from Coach Brown that nets Joel more attempts in Game 2. Additionally, watch for Coach Stevens countermove too.
BONUS: Skip to the 31:30 mark to hear Zach Wilson and I breakdown the BOS/PHI playoff matchup!