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If Joel Embiid can guard Boston’s wings, he can guard any wing

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An ability to defend smaller perimeter players may unlock an even higher ceiling for the big man.

Chicago Bulls v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

If you only scrolled through your Twitter feed after the Boston Celtics beat the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday, you bore witness to Joel Embiid getting baptized at the hands of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

These plays, of course, happened late in the fourth quarter, when the negatives for Joel Embiid piled on. Jayson Tatum stared into his soul. Jaylen Brown’s backboard-throw was declared a dunk.

Mentally broken, Joel Embiid said what was on everyone’s mind, “This is not a rivalry. “I don’t know our record against them, but it’s pretty bad. They always kick our ass.”

Rewind those plays and the positives are more clear. Embiid chose to step up to the plate and defend the rim even against a potential posterization. He laterally moved his feet against one of the zippiest wings.

Rewind even further to last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, when Embiid wasn’t even able to switch onto guards in pick-and-rolls. Boston capitalized by running their guards, mostly Rozier and Tatum, through loops of ball-screens, resulting in heaps of points. They knew Embiid was either going to retreat into coverage to cover Horford or gravitate to Baynes in the corner.

Boston tried the same strategy early Tuesday, but by halftime, they were forced to adjust. As our own Jackson Frank pointed out, Horford was his usual self, persisting as Embiid’s kryptonite. His brute strength and chess-like post moves repeatedly overpowered the Philadelphia big man.

By the fourth quarter, it was Embiid who was wreaking havoc defensively in all pockets of the court. So Brad Stevens scribbled up plays to stretch the big’s defensive presence out. Irving, who was struggling up to that point, darted upstream from a Baynes down screen. Irving then curled around the screen with the ball, slicing open space for him to probe Embiid. The play forced the big man to choose between confronting Irving’s tricky layup package or Baynes’ newfound corner prowess.

And of course, Baynes hit one of his two three-point shots, because that’s what he does against Philadelphia.

Stevens was forced to integrate these plays not only because Irving needed the ball, but because Embiid has morphed into a malleable perimeter defender; he poked holes in the fabric of Boston’s game plan. Not many big men are capable of hedging and switching onto guards who isolate 30 feet from the basket or snake through ball screens.

Perhaps predicting Boston would run pick-and-rolls as they did last playoff series, Embiid began the game matched up against Tatum, while Simmons guarded Horford. In the same vein, Embiid went out of his way to match up with wings in transition, unusual for bigs of his size.

As a counter, Tatum tried leveraging his footwork, using the pull-ups and step-backs he modeled after Kobe Bryant. Time wasn’t wasted, as Tatum isolated Embiid early and often, but to no avail. Embiid understood that Tatum wanted to end his plays either by a) utilizing his patented left-handed dribble pull-up to shoot in the mid-range, or b) pulling back with his right step-back and shoot from deep.

Embiid answered by forcing Tatum right once he galloped into the mid-range. And he gave him enough space to step-back, but not enough space for an open shot, his arms stretching far enough for the shot to be contested.

To counter Embiid’s improved perimeter defense in isolations, Boston utilized pick-and-rolls. They focused on getting the biggest mismatch, which was, more often than not, between Boston’s bevy of big wings and Philadelphia’s cupboard of diminutive guards.

On the third play, specifically, Irving sets a floppy screen for Tatum. Here, playing Redick and McConnell together is exposed, as Redick should be the closest help defender. Instead, Embiid has to rotate down, leaving Covington to guard both Horford and Irving open on the perimeter.

As the season trudges on, the pairings of guards in lineups will be a hot topic of debate. When a pair of either McConnell, Shamet, Fultz, and Redick took the floor on Tuesday—which they did for much of the game besides a tiny stretch in the early third quarter—Boston’s wings overpowered them and attacked at every opportunity, causing Embiid to shift farther on help-side. Like Boston, teams of similar talent—Toronto, Los Angeles (Lakers), and Utah would be examples—boast big wing ammunition, and won’t be afraid to fire lineups that pin Philadelphia’s switchability against the wall.

Enter Joel Embiid’s help-side disruption. A season ago, the big man ranked 7th for centers in Bball Index’s D-PIPM for players who played in 50 games or more. He forces offensive players, as he did to Kyrie Irving in multiple occasions, to over-dribble following ball-screens and isolations.

The problem is that skilled players, Irving is one, wait patiently for Embiid to slowly drift from the picture, until he stretches towards the ethos of Baynes’ newfound corner shot or Horford’s inside game. Irving, for example, would dribble around, then speed by, and finally outsmart his outmatched opponent. Basically, Embiid is a valuable safety net, until the smaller guards need help. No matter what, Joel Embiid will make an impact, positive if only his teammates rotate swiftly on help-side and jump passing lanes or stifle ensuing drives.

When Embiid was positioned on wings in the corner, he funneled them towards the baseline, indicative of a defender who sponges in his coaches’ defensive schemes. Then, he sputtered around the court like a gigantic waterbug, communicating and shifting his hips while rotating to another wing or contesting point-blank shots, with his body a full 90 degrees.

But when guards isolated or called for ball-screens at the top, all Embiid could do was watch, as he was glued to Boston’s shooting-inclined wings. In pick-and-rolls, Baynes or Horford popped out to the three-point line and demanded attention. As I said, Embiid started the game matched up against Tatum, and that’s a facet that needs to continue so he is situated on help-side more often.

In the second half, Boston kept hammering away at a discernible goal: get Embiid shifting at maximum pace, to tire him out not only defensively, but offensively. The tacit strategy worked for Boston as Embiid was catching his breath while Simmons thrust through the wind in transition offense.

It also worked for the Celtics when they had the ball. Philadelphia was forced to employ drop-coverage when guards veered around the sharp corner of a Horford or Baynes-set screen, allowing the space for high-IQ players like Tatum to read and make plays in mere split-seconds.

With Jonah Bolden not entering the game until the final minute of garbage time against Boston, and Mike Muscala injured, Philadelphia relied on Amir Johnson as the brace, the backup option, when the spine, Embiid, collapsed. In all respects, Johnson is an ode to the joy of throwback centers.

Perhaps more consequential, the big man offers little joy as the revolution of ball screens progresses. He defended Baynes well in the interior. But on the exterior, he got tangled up, stumbling his feet as he over-hedged, allowing Boston’s smorgasbord of big wings, Jaylen Brown here, to beat him at a whim.

When Al Horford screened Amir Johnson, the Boston big beelined to the post to pummel rookie Landry Shamet, whose frame is drawn like a stick figure. Triggered to help down low, Ben Simmons freed up Marcus Morris, a 35.7% career three-point shooter, on the wing as a result.

Johnson mostly played next to Covington and Simmons, two chameleon-like defenders capable of moving to help-side. Continuing with that approach should keep the defense buoying above the surface. But playing Muscala (when he’s healthy of course), or even Bolden, next to the two should diversify the results, as both players are more spry, with more ability to switch.

A more practical approach, since the rotation won’t drastically change within days, is altering the approach so Johnson doesn’t switch onto guards at the rate Embiid does. The offense seems to play to the strengths of its stars— Brett Brown doesn’t draw up off-ball screens for Ben Simmons—and the defense should be no different for role players.

The returns on Embiid’s improved defensive play won’t be felt right away. But as he switches screens and pits himself against isolating guards, opposing teams will be forced to adjust their schemes, which will, at least, take mileage off of Covington and Simmons, as they can sink under screens with ease. And at his peak, Embiid’s defense can negate the glut of lineups which pair undersized or slow-moving guards together.