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Sixers/Celtics Week: Battle of the Big Men

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Joel Embiid vs. Al Horford is one of the many intriguing matchups between these Eastern Conference rivals.

NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

At SB Nation, we aren’t afraid to reach across the aisle. Liberty Ballers and Celtics Blog are teaming up for Sixers/Celtics Week. We will be working together to cover all the best storylines, matchups, and topics of discussion surrounding these two long-time rivals.

In a league increasingly focused on playing smallball, both the Sixers and Celtics are in the rare position where the player arguably most critical to their success mans the center position. Joel Embiid and Al Horford were both Eastern Conference All-Stars last season, serving as the backbones of defenses that finished first (Boston at 101.5) and third (Philadelphia at 102.0) in defensive rating, and went on to meet in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

While the two players have similar stature on the court, they couldn’t be more different off it. Embiid is widely regarded as the league’s premier social media superstar and one of the most outsized personalities in the game. Whether it’s video of him running through the streets of Philadelphia, posts where he trolls the competition, or rumors about a celebrity crush, anything Embiid does is catnip for an NBA fanbase eager to connect with the gregarious Sixers center.

Conversely, Al Horford leads the relatively quiet life of a family man, quite a remarkable feat considering his wife, Amelia Vega, is a former Miss Universe winner. Since Horford isn’t a guy who seeks the spotlight either off the court or on it, everything about him reads as “boring” from a distance. It’s why the “pointzzz” crowd of NBA social media regularly bemoaned his max contract, something in their mind that should only be reserved for players who drop at least 20 points per night. It also fed into the derogatory “Average Al” moniker on Boston sports radio. To get more insight into Horford’s place within the Boston sports scene, we turn for the first time to Alex Kungu (@Kungu_NBA on Twitter) of Celtics Blog.

“Al Horford has been a polarizing figure in Boston sports media. Similar to Philadelphia, Boston has strong mainstream media (Radio, TV) and secondary outlets like our blog. The difference is Boston’s mainstream media doesn’t even pretend to watch basketball, with the nickname “Average Al” being derived from someone who openly admits that he doesn’t watch the games. At this point, there’s always going to be fair weather fans who base their opinions on the latest box score, but as a group, fans and pundits seem to have fully appreciated the value Horford brings.”

Hopefully, even among those fair weather fans, Horford’s dynamite 2018 postseason put the “Average Al” stuff to rest for good. Despite a year where Embiid tallied higher totals in the majority of the counting stats and finished as Defensive Player of the Year, it’s not crazy to argue Horford had the better season (I wouldn’t personally do it, but it’s not crazy). The Celtics center was the more efficient player than Embiid, shooting the rock better from the field (48.9% to 48.3%), three-point range (42.9% to 32.7%), and the free throw line (78.3% to 77.4%), while also tallying a far superior assist-to-turnover ratio (2.6 to 0.9).

Certainly, a fair argument can be made that Embiid had to carry a much larger burden for the Sixers throughout the year, and efficiency is bound to tail off as a player has to assume a higher usage rate. However, Horford also had the upper hand when the two teams faced each other. Here are how the two players fared when they were both on the court across three regular season and five postseason games last season (I feel compelled to mention that Embiid had to play the postseason games in a cumbersome mask that clearly bothered him).

With both Philadelphia and Boston often playing two bigs, Embiid and Horford weren’t usually directly matched up against each other. Notably, in the postseason, Sixers head coach Brett Brown liked having Embiid on Aron Baynes, rationalizing that Embiid could remain in the lane to protect the rim without having to worry about Baynes in the corner. Unfortunately for Philadelphia fans, the small sample size gods chortled at this strategy. Baynes, who shot 3-21 (14.3%) from three in the regular season, finished 7-16 (43.8%) from behind the arc in the series.

Still, we did see the two All-Stars go mano-a-mano a decent amount throughout the year. On a handful of occasions, Embiid had his way. (So don’t read this and send me clips of him dunking on Horford. I mean, you can. I enjoy watching them). He’s too talented a player to ever be completely stonewalled. For the most part, though, Horford seemed to get the best of the young Sixers star.

Embiid struggled to defend Horford out to the perimeter. His defensive game is centered around protecting the paint, so having to recover to the three-point line presented a problem.

Even down low, Big Al had enough skills in his veteran bag of tricks to finish over the longer Sixers center.

On the other end, Horford has the girth and knowledge of defensive positioning to hold his own down low. Embiid’s usual strategy of just being bigger than his opponent wasn’t enough to get the job done.

Horford is also quick enough to recover and effectively challenge Joel’s jumpers. Embiid’s three-point shooting isn’t quite at the point yet where opposing defenders have to seriously concern themselves with it, and the Boston center was able to close off the mid-range.

Of course, these two players aren’t competing in a vacuum in perpetuity. Joel Embiid is still just 24 years old and has only played 94 career NBA regular season games. Now 32 years old, Horford was starting in his first playoff series for the Hawks (ironically against Boston) before Embiid had even starting playing the sport of basketball. Whenever I watch Embiid, it looks like Neo first learning about the Matrix, with new skills being downloaded into his game seemingly every time he takes the court. What is scary about Embiid for the opposition is not only how good he already is, but how high the ceiling is he could still potentially reach.

On the other hand, you have Al Horford at the tail end of his prime and entering what is typically the downslope of an NBA player’s career. To project how Horford’s game should age, we turn once again to Alex Kungu.

“The beautiful thing about Horford’s game is none of it is based on elite athleticism which is the first thing that starts to go with age. Horford is one of the smartest players in the league, and reads the floor on both ends as well as anyone. Anticipation has been his best friend and I think it will continue to be for the foreseeable future. It wouldn’t surprise me if Boston and Horford worked out some deal next summer that’s similar to LaMarcus Aldridge’s contract, where he opts out and re-signs on a longer deal that’s less than the max but guarantees him more years. Horford’s game projects to age well, and his rare skillset and leadership qualities are too valuable to move on from (unless Anthony Davis becomes available).”

Without a doubt, Boston and Philadelphia will be doing battle all season long as two of the main contenders in the Eastern Conference. The matchup of these two All-Star centers, one fighting Father Time and one finding the upper limits of his own potential, is just one of the many intriguing subplots to watch this season. Whatever side you personally land on, it’s good to have this rivalry back in our lives.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com.