Joel Embiid is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, an imposing post player, a monstrous rebounder, and the NBA’s fourth-leading scorer in 2018-19. Embiid is a lot of things, but a rim roller is not one of them.
In Game 3 against the Toronto Raptors, though, as the Philadelphia 76ers took a 2-1 series lead with an authoritative 116-95 win, Embiid used some new-found momentum in the pick-and-roll to help him return from two disappointing (albeit unhealthy) games to open the series.
Embiid finished Game 3 with 33 points (9-of-18 shooting, with a 3-of-4 mark from 3 and 12-of-13 from the free throw line), 10 rebounds, three assists and five blocks in just 28 minutes. He was dominant all around. He looked more nimble defensively, blocked and deterred countless attempts from the Raptors to score inside, and he was more assertive on offense. In fact, to cap off his performance with some history, Embiid became the first player to ever record at least 30 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in under 30 minutes in a playoff game.
Through the first two games of this series, Marc Gasol was able to slow down Embiid in the post with smart, physical defense. It’s what Gasol does best. His primary weakness, on the other hand, is defending in space and being forced to cover more ground when guarding pick-and-rolls. Even Greg Monroe found success with 10 points in Game 2 after a flurry of effective dives to the rim, prompting the need for Embiid to do more of the same.
It's pretty crazy that this is where we're at with the Sixers' bench, but Greg Monroe was fairly solid in Game 2. His rolls to the rim helped. The Sixers need to keep attacking Gasol in the pick-and-roll pic.twitter.com/7voy2D0zxo— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) May 2, 2019
Of course, Embiid operated through some dribble hand-offs and post-ups as always, and got the best of Gasol within the first few minutes by bullying his way across the lane to drop in a layup. Nine of Embiid’s 18 field goal attempts came within the paint, but most of his misses were from settling for mid-range jumpers or getting caught on the block with slower post-ups.
Brett Brown has wisely made a clear effort to shift Ben Simmons into more of an off-ball cutting/screening role this series (which always had to be the case with Kawhi Leonard as his defender), while increasing the team’s pick-and-roll usage, primarily led by Jimmy Butler. After using a pick-and-roll ball handler for just 13.1 possessions per game during the regular season (29th in the NBA), the Sixers have upped that number to 17.4 in the playoffs.
Downhill dives to the rim are unleashing the speed advantage Embiid needed over Toronto’s bigs. Here, Butler brings two defenders with him as Serge Ibaka soft hedges. Once Butler has the full attention of Ibaka and the trailing Fred VanVleet, Butler drops the bounce pass to Embiid. By this point, it’s too late for Ibaka to contain the rumbling Embiid, who finishes with an easy floater:
With Gasol soft hedging on this play, Butler easily pulls the Raptors’ center and Leonard with him at the elbow, yet again waiting for just the right moment to hit Embiid with the pocket pass. Gasol is unable to recover down the lane by this point and Kyle Lowry arrives late to tag Embiid’s roll (not to mention having little hope of doing anything once he got there anyway), so Embiid picks up an open layup and foul:
Butler is a good enough playmaker to beat the Raptors in these situations. Especially when the Raptors are using soft hedging, the Sixers can exploit the lack of remaining rim protection inside.
This dribble hand-off with JJ Redick worked to similar effect. With Butler set up way above the 3-point line and Tobias Harris in the weakside corner, the Sixers are boosting their spacing as much as possible (Leonard sags off Simmons from just inside the arc, but there’s still only so much he can do by himself as the last line of defense). Lowry has to fully commit to Redick receiving the hand-off and Gasol presses to prevent an open shot, which leaves Embiid in space to charge down the lane and draw a foul on Leonard:
After ranking 30th in their usage of pick-and-roll roll men in each of the last two seasons, Embiid has hardly had a chance to develop this aspect of his game. But even though he isn’t a particularly adept or high-speed rim roller at this point of his career, he can clearly improve. And, most importantly for the time being, he can find success with it in this matchup against Toronto.
It’s no accident that even after an impactful first two games on Embiid in the post, Gasol now has the worst defensive rating of any Raptor in this series at 111.2. The Sixers have found success when pulling him away from the basket, capitalizing with rolling bigs and the creative gifts of Butler. Partly thanks to those extra pick-and-rolls, Butler has come alive over the last two games, averaging 26 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and 48.6 percent shooting. This upward trend has been a key factor in flipping the tone of this series from troubling to exciting for the Sixers.
There’s so much for Philly and their fans to like about Embiid’s Game 3 performance. From three blocks on Siakam to a windmill dunk, it was a night to remember. But along with everything else, Embiid’s pick-and-roll play, which added a new dynamic to the offense and helped him gain a new advantage over Gasol, should not be overlooked.
Brett Brown continues to implement adjustments that Nick Nurse and the Raptors haven’t been able to counter, and his stars are delivering.