In Sunday’s Game 4 against the Toronto Raptors, Joel Embiid was severely limited by flu-like symptoms, hampering his normally dominant offensive game. After a historic Game 3, Embiid scored 11 points on 2-of-7 shooting in Game 4. His defense, however, was staunch as ever. On back-to-back Toronto possessions late in the second quarter, the crown jewel of Philadelphia’s defense swatted Serge Ibaka at the rim.
Embiid blocks a dunk from Ibaka, Simmons gets a dunk. The Sixers needed this sequence pic.twitter.com/sVBdEsXcQd— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) May 5, 2019
Ok, Embiid now has two ridiculous blocks on Ibaka pic.twitter.com/5yfBtDFURU— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) May 5, 2019
The clips show Embiid doing everything. In the first clip, Leonard threads the needle in the pick-and-roll, yet Embiid recovers to stuff Ibaka. Before dream-shaking and finding Ben Simmons for the slam, he takes his sweet time gazing into Ibaka’s soul. In the second one, he switches onto a guard, Kyle Lowry. Although he runs Gasol off the line a second early, he makes up for it by sending Ibaka’s shot into the second row. The sequence epitomized his importance to Philadelphia’s defense.
In the regular season, the Sixers defense was 5.6 points better when Embiid played. In other words, the third-best defense in the league turned into the fifth-worst defense. That difference has widened in the playoffs, with the Sixers’ defense 14.3 points worse when he rests. The best playoff defense by more than five points (above none other than Toronto) turns into the third-worst playoff defense (between Brooklyn and Detroit).
Since Brett Brown made key defensive adjustments after Game 1 (switching Embiid onto Pascal Siakam and Tobias Harris onto Marc Gasol), the Sixers have won two of the last three games, owners of the best defense by five points. While Harris demands help when Gasol posts up, Embiid gifting space to Siakam is the best remedy:
In the first play in the above sequence, Embiid’s defense against Siakam was so good that his Cameroonian peer retaliated by tripping him. Embiid switched onto Siakam after a high ball-screen, so Siakam did what he so often does against bigs: isolated. As one of the switchiest centers, though, Embiid isn’t cut from the same cloth. Once Siakam uncoiled, the Sixers center’s first step was a backpedal. This allowed him the space to shuffle either way in case Siakam deployed his mean spin-move. The next trip down the court, Siakam tried dunking on Embiid only to get blocked into another dimension, too.
Regardless of his opponent, Embiid is playing great defense. According to NBA.com’s matchup stats, 87 percent of Embiid’s defensive possessions have come against Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. He’s holding the larger members of the Toronto starting frontcourt to 37 percent shooting on 43 attempts.
Even though Marc Gasol went 2-of-4 for six points against Embiid last outing, many of his makes were contested. Particularly, Embiid defended Gasol well in the pick-and-roll, despite having to help onto Kawhi — a stone-cold killer in every category. These awkward floaters don’t usually fall for ‘Big Spain,’ who was shooting 30 percent in the series before game 4.
While the first play ends in a shot Gasol makes, Embiid defends the action well. The play starts as a side hand-off play, but once Redick is able to go under, Gasol re-screens for a high ball-screen. Embiid contains Powell, then recovers quickly enough to get a hand in Gasol’s face.
Sometimes players simply make difficult shots, though. Help onto Kawhi and the playoff MVP hits crazy shots anyway. His game-sealing dagger was a fadeaway 3, highly-contested by Embiid. As with any player, though, regression to the mean is inevitable. His percentages on “tight” and “very-tight” shots are more than 6 percent and 10 percent higher in the playoffs than the regular season, respectively. In the Eastern Conference semifinals, his “very-tight” percentage is 20 percent higher.
After a game in which Leonard scored 39 points — his fourth-straight 30-point performance in this round — Brett Brown suggested the Sixers could ramp up the pressure.
“I think we’ve done a decent job on him,” Brown said. “Might we look to double team him a little bit more? Possibly. But we were able to create — I think he had seven turnovers — and just try to do our best to kind of show him a crowd. But at the end of the day, that’s a hell of a playoff game. Thirty-nine points and you really felt all of them.”
When Embiid “blitzed” Kawhi in the pick-and-roll, he either flummoxed the star — he had seven turnovers last game — or at least forced other players to create:
On the first play, Embiid blitzed the side ball-screen, so Redick rotated to defend the “short-roll” by Gasol. A corner-shooter open, Kawhi is unwilling to make the cross-court pass. Forcing Kawhi to become a passer is the answer, given his penchant for isolations and missed reads.
Make or miss, Embiid is goading opponents into tough, inefficient shots. He’s helping on Kawhi while Siakam clanks corner triples or watches Serge Ibaka airball. Heck, he is daring the center who started the trend of stretch-fives to shoot, inducing a case of the yips.
Allowing his man to shoot the ball has empowered Embiid to become a full-time rim protector. From within six feet, Embiid has held Toronto opponents to just 53.8 percent shooting, fourth-lowest for defenders with six or more shots defended in that range.
In the first play, Embiid goes into “deep-drop” coverage. With Butler in “rearview pursuit” mode, Embiid sticks to Lowry as he turns the corner. Butler catching up and Gasol “sinking” to the corner, forces Embiid to “bump” back to Gasol. But once Lowry crosses Butler over, Embiid helps again, enough to dissuade a layup.
He is swatting shots on help-side, chasing down layup attempts like a madman, on his way to recording legendary statistical outings with blocks. In short, Embiid is proving why he is considered a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
While his sickness and knee troubles will likely persist, there’s no reason to expect anything less than stellar defense from Embiid. Yes, the Raptors hit some tough shots last game, but the Sixers will live with a lot of them to an extent. And if the Sixers iron out a few kinks, that could mean “stopping” Kawhi enough to pull out a win in Toronto.