The Philadelphia 76ers needed to beat the Boston Celtics this week. Not for their position in the East, but to prove things have changed. To show that their new star-studded team won’t enter the playoffs suffering from the exact same flaws that have always held them beneath the Celtics.
On Wednesday, Joel Embiid dominated with one of the best performances of his career to ensure that happened.
Embiid’s night doesn’t just stand out because of his numbers, although they were monstrous to say the least. He finished with 37 points (only needing 8-of-17 shooting thanks to his 20-of-21 barrage from the free throw line), a season-high 22 rebounds, four assists to a respectable three turnovers, one steal and one block for a joint team-high plus-12.
Embiid’s night stands out because the typical issues he’s had against the Celtics in the past didn’t get the better of him. He was authoritative, poised, and showed what he’ll need to do at both ends to handle Boston in a playoff series.
Al Horford has always defended Embiid as well as anyone. Embiid’s True Shooting Percentage previously plummeted from his career average of 58.3 percent when Horford was on the floor, whether we are looking at last season (27.9), last year’s playoffs (49.1), or the initial meetings this season (52.6). That drop-off isn’t just a small sample size blip.
The trouble has often been rooted in attempts to overpower Horford in the post, relying on strength and fakes that Horford (and to a lesser extent Aron Baynes) can handle. Horford is great at anchoring his smaller frame to the court, using leverage against Embiid, and staying grounded on pump fakes that leave Embiid with fewer clear looks and free throws.
Of course, all those concerns haven’t just vanished. On Wednesday, though, Embiid was processing the game at an excellent level. His physical aggression was accompanied by decisive moves, resulting in swift duck-ins like this. On both plays here, he establishes ideal positioning under the basket, and wastes no time turning to drop in soft finishes over Baynes:
Similarly, Embiid didn’t overcomplicate his face-up/post-up possessions against other defenders, including Horford. On the first play in this clip, he finds good positioning and has no trouble drawing a foul from Horford. With Embiid making forceful steps down the lane in the second play, the only thing Daniel Theis could do to hold him off was raise his arms, hope for the best, and ultimately foul:
Here, Embiid makes the right move by using speed to his advantage. He picks up a switch onto Jaylen Brown, prompting Horford to call for a scram switch to avoid the size mismatch in the post. Before giving Horford what he wants with a battle on the block, Embiid attacks immediately and blows by for the smooth reverse:
On this play, Embiid was able to attack a switch right away before the Celtics could adjust. Rather than opting for bully ball against the smaller Jayson Tatum, Embiid rumbles past with a nifty hesitation and quick first step for the and-one:
Part of Philly’s success came from giving Embiid opportunities against non-Horford defenders when possible. This SLOB play from Brett Brown worked like a charm. Horford starts the play on Embiid while Marcus Morris is on Simmons, yet a sudden cut from Simmons forces a switch. Before Horford can shift up to Embiid, though, JJ Redick curls down the lane, forcing Horford to switch again. Now, with Brown switched into his sights, Embiid uses a slight fake dribble hand-off to Redick to freeze Brown and power down the lane:
Embiid’s decisive approach translated into his passing, too. He made several sharp reads to keep the ball moving and overcome double teams.
Irving leaves T.J. McConnell completely unguarded here and opts to double. Embiid knows McConnell should be ready in the corner, so rather than forcing something against the double team as he may have done more carelessly before, he turns and fires a spot-on pass across the court:
Here, the second Terry Rozier has arrived in the post to double, Embiid hits James Ennis at the arc. Ennis just needed to finish the play correctly by taking the open 3:
As much as Embiid can still work on improving his passing, he has taken steps forward this season with his decision-making and awareness. It leads to passes like this, and his career-best turnover percentage (13.3, down from 15.6 last year).
Embiid knows he’s struggled against the Celtics before. “I’ve been hearing that these guys can guard me better than anybody else,” he said in his post-game interview before leaving the court. “So I just had to come out and show that I’m the most unstoppable player in the league.”
His defense can’t be overlooked either. There were some communication miscues with Embiid and teammates on switches, and Irving understandably beat him on drives at times. But overall, Embiid’s defense since returning from injury has been exceptional, and his rotations, rebounding, and movement around the floor were mostly on-point against Boston.
As Irving tried to bring the Celtics back into the game with 35 seconds left, Embiid shut him down in superstar fashion. Embiid allowed no room for a 3-pointer, then trailed Irving down the lane (as he often likes to do so well) before twisting his body, shifting back in front, and rejecting the layup:
The Athletic’s Rich Hofmann noted how smart Embiid’s approach was on this critical play. Embiid had paid attention to how Irving would try to throw his body into Embiid when approaching the basket to create breathing room to finish.
“That’s the thing about being a good defensive player, stuff happens and you learn on the fly,” Embiid said, per Hofmann. “And he likes to get his body into guys or into me. So I figured that out. He tried to get his body into me and I just let him through and recovered with my length.”
The Sixers’ big man was ready to counter when the game was on the line. He was also ready for Jimmy Butler’s fourth-quarter explosion after a cold first three quarters at both ends of the floor.
“We talked about it before the game,” Embiid said afterwards. “I told him that I needed him tonight, that I needed this win. And he told me to get him to the fourth [quarter], and, you know, he’s gonna take over. That’s what I tried to do... He’s our best closer.”
This approach is what the Sixers need. Embiid doesn’t have to force the issue so much now that he has star creators to ease the load when closing games.
Plenty is going well for Philly right now. Tobias Harris has fit in seamlessly, the new starting five has a plus-17.7 net rating (with a 7-1 record when they’ve all been available), the team is riding a 6-game win streak, and Butler has upped his aggression the last four games and finished off the Celtics with another reminder of how he can help close.
With Embiid leading the way as a dominant two-way superstar, turning in two of the best games of his career to beat Milwaukee and Boston over the last week, the Sixers seem to be rounding into form as the playoffs approach.