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Celtics allow Embiid to dominate post while smothering perimeter

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The Celtics encouraged Embiid to take over in the post in Game 1, and he did. But that helped them disrupt the rest of the Sixers’ offense.

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NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers had their lowest 3-point output (5-of-26) in a game since January 29, their worst defensive performance in some time (Robert Covington looked lost), and Ben Simmons was subdued by the Celtics with more turnovers than assists (seven to six) for just the seventh time in his young career. The opportunity to steal a 1-0 series lead while Jaylen Brown was sidelined disappeared in a hurry.

It was an ugly start to the second round to say the least. Meanwhile, everything that could have gone the Boston Celtics’ way did, from Terry Rozier dropping 29 points and seven 3s, to Al Horford delivering a brilliant two-way outing.

“This isn’t who we are,” was the perfect summary from Brett Brown after the 117-101 loss, per NBA.com’s Brian Seltzer. “I give the Celtics a lot of credit for producing that. We’re going to have to fix some things. We look forward to getting back on track.”

Possibly the only positive from Game 1 is how Joel Embiid — despite being far from his best defensively — got whatever he wanted offensively. On his way to recording 31 points (12-of-21 shooting), 13 rebounds and five assists, Embiid put on a master class of post moves, toying with Aron Baynes in the third quarter like a child in a driveway, not a 6’10”, 260-pound center. In fact, Embiid became just the fourth player in the last 20 years to record 30 points and 10 rebounds in a playoff game in their first or second season.

That being said, it’s crucial to note that a lot of Embiid’s freedom and success inside came by design. Brad Stevens was happy letting the Sixers' offense slow down, forcing Embiid to work harder inside, rather than the team getting open 3s thanks to double teams on Embiid in the post.

“You’re going to have to balance that as the series goes on,” Stevens said when asked about not doubling Embiid, per The Athletic’s Jared Weiss. “He could get 31 in isolation or whatever, but if you’re doubling him and everything else, are you giving up 33 because you’re leaving shooters? It’s a fine line. It’s a balancing act. It’s what makes it really hard to play these guys because they’re so talented and they find the hot guy.”

The Celtics left their bigs one-on-one and put an emphasis on sticking to shooters. And it paid off.

Nevertheless, Embiid’s scoring was encouraging. It was his best offensive game of the playoffs so far. He tied his most efficient performance (Game 5 against Miami), matched his lowest turnover rate at three, and easily surpassed his scoring high of 23. He proved that while Horford can give him problems, he can still get his own against the team and have his way with Baynes.

In the third quarter, as Embiid scored 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting, his combination of strength and nimble skill was too much for Boston to handle. There’s nothing more Horford can do here as Embiid simply lowers his shoulder, takes some contact down the lane, and softly finishes at the rim:

In the clip below, Embiid glides past a physical contest from Baynes by facing up and spinning to the rim, before following up shortly after with a drive, blowing right past Baynes down the lane to finish with a smooth finger roll:

Embiid is a marvel when he’s using everything in his repertoire like this. You can see why he’s drawn Hakeem Olajuwon comparisons when he’s too giant and too graceful for anyone to contain. The Sixers missed that creation when their offense slowed down early in the first round against Miami.

The problem is that this wasn’t (and won’t be) enough for the Sixers to win going forward against Boston.

Embiid can’t score all the time, whether Horford holds his ground by planting his feet well, using his lower centre of gravity to lean into Embiid, and contest short jumpers:

Or, more importantly, the Sixers’ off-ball movement comes to a standstill as they wait for Embiid to save them in the post. This happened too often in Game 1 against an elite defense that is ramped up with playoff intensity. It also didn't help that the Celtics played great defense on Simmons, slowing him down by cutting off drives to the lane and playing sound transition defense.

Embiid banged against Baynes on this possession and eventually missed a layup. But the main problem is that as the Celtics stick to shooters outside and offer no help on Embiid, everyone stands still, watching their star run out the shot clock when there were still 10 seconds left to cut and create some quick off-ball movement to give Embiid another option:

All the Celtics cared about was not getting beaten from deep, and it paid off. While there’s only so much they can do to force misses, they did hold the Sixers to five fewer 3-point attempts than they averaged in round one.

Philly will need to make some tweaks in Game 2. For a start, Rozier won’t explode for seven triples again and the Celtics won’t go 17-of-35 from 3, so that will help create more stops and transition opportunities right away. Posting up Simmons more, as a passer and scorer, could be another way to get him going as well after the Celtics used his total lack of range against him.

As simple as it is, though, a lot of this comes down to hitting shots — 23 of the Sixers’ 26 3-point attempts were either open (4-6 feet of space) or wide open (6-plus feet of space). The biggest challenge is creating good looks to begin with, and the Sixers still did that to a fair degree. If Embiid keeps dominating inside to the point that the Celtics are forced to add more help or occasional double teams, space could quickly increase for shooters and the offense could come around in a hurry.

Primarily, the big changes need to come defensively:

  • J.J. Redick can't be on Jayson Tatum so much — keep him on Marcus Smart more, whose lack of shooting is the best place to hide him this series when the Celtics have so many big wings at their disposal (especially when Brown returns).
  • Robert Covington can't fall asleep so often on simple cuts. If he’s even at 80 percent of his usual self, that makes a big difference immediately.
  • Embiid needs to contest Horford at the 3-point line with more urgency. Of course, that in itself brings about more issues as part of Horford’s strength is being able to pull Embiid away from the paint. But giving up spacious 3s can’t happen.
  • Try using Simmons on Smart more, allowing the 6’10” All-Defensive candidate to create havoc in a free safety role.
  • More effort and awareness all around. The Sixers were messy in their pick-and-roll coverage, late to help at the perimeter, and blew too many assignments to allow open 3s and cuts to the rim.
  • Play Belinelli less if his shot is off or at least try and execute a second switch when possible (he was attacked off the dribble and through switches in the pick-and-roll relentlessly by Boston, being killed by Horford or anyone who could get their sights on him.) By second switch, I mean using Simmons like this:

Redick was mismatched on Horford in the post after another pick-and-pop, but Simmons sees that and nips across the lane. Redick winds up guarding Shane Larkin, and the Sixers have reset to far more favorable matchups. If this can be pulled off enough and Belinelli can find his shot, his minutes will be far more helpful. And again, if Simmons is assigned to Smart and doesn’t guard him at the arc, he has the freedom to roam and provide help/switch in these situations.

Ultimately, Embiid calling his own defensive efforts "shitty" and hardly speaking much better of the team sums it up. Even though it's highly unlikely the Celtics will shoot so well again, the Sixers need to raise their game and adjust accordingly. Stevens put together a terrific game plan and his team executed perfectly.

“Obviously, those few days off weren’t the best for us and it is good that we took the lesson now rather than later,” said Simmons, per The Athletic's Derek Bodner. “I think we are just trying to get our legs back under us.”

Hopefully for Philly, that's what Game 1 was: a harsh learning experience. After gaining so much momentum through the end of the regular season and round one, the Sixers need to snap back to playoff reality — rest is crucial, but the six-day break may have had some negative side effects. If they rediscover anything close to their defensive, 3-point shooting best, all while Embiid has his way inside, the Sixers should be capable of a strong bounce back performance in Game 2.

All statistics courtesy of NBA.com.