As you’d expect for any player returning after nearly a month off due to injury, there have been signs of rust for Joel Embiid the last two games. He started slow with some clunky attempts and poor shot selection against Indiana, before turning himself around to finish with 33 points, and had a flurry of messy mistakes with six turnovers against Cleveland on Tuesday.
On defense, though? Well, there hasn’t been much rust. In his first two games back, he’s been a force in all the ways that the Philadelphia 76ers missed so dearly in his absence.
Embiid gave the Pacers constant trouble in his return. He was assigned to Thaddeus Young, making it easier for him to drop back and patrol the paint while Ben Simmons handled the superior 3-point threat in Myles Turner. Whether it was Young (0-of-3 shooting with Embiid as his primary defender) or Domantas Sabonis (0-of-5), Embiid held off Indiana's bigs. He was a rock guarding the post, sliding his feet well to compete on drives, banging on the low block, and using his quick hands to break up plays whenever possible:
It goes without saying that Embiid is Philly's best shot blocker by a mile. His length and instinctual timing as a help defender can clean up possessions that would otherwise end in easy layups or free throws for opponents. This was on full display against the Cavs as Embiid tallied four blocks, including a rejection to wipe out what would have been an uncontested Ante Zizic dunk. Embiid moves out of position to prevent a pass to Jordan Clarkson after JJ Redick gets lost on a screen, and still recovers for the block:
But as is always the case with good rim protection, blocks are only a small part of it. Embiid has deterred a host of shots inside already, using his positioning and size to allow opponents to shoot just 50 percent within five feet over the last two games. It's obviously a small sample, but a drop from 62.8 percent in the eight-game stretch without Embiid still reinforces what's on display when watching him bother the opposition.
In fact, for the season, Embiid is only letting opponents shoot 54.3 percent against him at the rim. Among 19 players defending at least five such shots per game, that places him fifth. And seeing as he defends more shots than the entire group with eight per game, and has to help cover for Philly’s struggling perimeter defense, it’s even more impressive.
Having Embiid to patrol the paint and quarterback the defense makes a huge difference. The Sixers have allowed 5.1 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor this season for a reason.
Except for throwing himself at Kyle O’Quinn to contest the eventual mid-range jumper here, Embiid couldn’t have done any more. The Pacers should have been set for an easier look with a five-on-four opportunity in transition. Instead, Embiid calls to Tobias Harris to pick up the ball (Bogdanovic), then recognizes Wesley Matthews is open in the corner and chases him off the line:
Without Embiid’s communication and closeout speed, the Sixers could have easily given up a look to Bogdanovic or an open 3 to Matthews.
Another integral part of Embiid’s defense is the way his presence alone can prevent opponents from attempting shots at the rim altogether, a dynamic the Sixers don't have whatsoever without him. Boban Marjanovic's size can be a nuisance for teams when he's right under the basket, but his lack of mobility leaves him open to attacks off the dribble. Jonah Bolden has athletic defensive playmaking ability, but he's easily prone to positioning miscues or fouls.
On this play, Embiid teams up with Harris to thwart two pick-and-roll attempts from Darren Collison. Harris keeps moving to take away Collison’s space around the initial screen, and with Embiid lurking in position, Collison neglects attacking the rim on two separate drive attempts. Once the ball is dumped off into Sabonis’s hands, it’s easy for Embiid to contest and force yet another miss:
Here, Cedi Osman attempts to drive but Embiid gives him no space inside, leaving Osman no choice but to pass. With nowhere to look except the strong-side corner, it’s easy for Ben Simmons to finish off the play by shifting into position for a steal:
When opponents do try to challenge Embiid, though, he still has the agility to switch outside and engulf drives to the rim. Take the three plays in the clip below, for instance, starting with Embiid providing tighter defense on a Bogdanovic drive than Jimmy Butler did all game. Embiid’s ability to hang with Cleveland’s nippier guards on drives to the rim was helpful as well:
In the playoffs, when the Sixers could face shooting bigs like Brook Lopez, and dynamic guards like Kyrie Irving, they’ll need to stop relying on drop coverage. It’s too easy for guards to find space for pull-ups with Embiid sagging back, or pause as defenders flail around screens before kicking the ball to an open popping center. Embiid’s agility will need to be put to use.
This play is an example of how Embiid can operate when he’s more aggressive in his pick-and-roll coverage. Unfortunately the final result is a foul here, but Embiid is everywhere before then. He effectively ICEs Collison, flies back to the perimeter to pick up Young, then breaks up Young’s drive. Not many centers can cover ground this smoothly:
Even after some frustrating offensive miscues against the Cavs, Embiid still made his mark on the game with 19 rebounds, four blocks, and imposing defense all around. And without his major influence at that end of the floor a couple of days earlier against the Pacers, the Sixers might not have the Eastern Conference’s third seed right now.
Embiid can single-handedly turn the team around with his communication, rim protection, and disruptive movement all over the court. Providing such impactful defense after several weeks off is a testament to the elite nature of his game.