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Rewind and Review: Assessing Joel Embiid’s involvement in the Sixers’ late-game offense

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics - Game One Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images

Following the Philadelphia 76ers’ 109-101 Game 1 loss to the Boston Celtics on Monday, Joel Embiid was the focus among fans and during the post-game media session. The 7-foot-2 superstar center imposed himself on the action, dropping 26 points, 16 rebounds, two steals, one block and one assist, but a quiet fourth quarter was the hot-button topic of the evening.

After drilling a long two with over 11 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, scoring his 20th and 21st points, Embiid failed to register another made field goal the rest of the way. From that point onward, he notched five points on 0-of-4 shooting, shifting from offensive nucleus to marginalized big man facilitating plays for teammates. Embiid has taken responsibility for his diminished presence and lack of assertiveness, while head coach Brett Brown also addressed his center’s usage, pushing against the notion of increased post touches and explaining his vision for maximizing the three-time All-Star (read those articles for further context).

Whether the solution is to saturate him with heightened low-post volume is not the concern today, though. I rewatched Monday’s game and charted each of the Sixers’ 13 offensive possessions once Embiid re-entered the contest for his closing stint with 5:53 to go. Aside from offensive rebounding opportunities, he touched the ball once inside the arc, an indictment of the process of those possessions.

Much fuss has been made about Embiid’s 15 field goal attempts, which matched Tobias Harris’ and Alec Burks’ output, and were outpaced by Josh Richardson’s 17. While slightly misleading — Embiid’s 21 true shot attempts when factoring in free throws bested Burks’ 18 for tops on the team — it’s reflective of an improper offensive hierarchy.

Embiid is Philadelphia’s best healthy player on both ends by a substantial margin. Unless someone is rolling, and that wasn’t the circumstance Monday, nobody should approach mirroring his scoring workload. There are a confluence of factors contributing to this occurrence. To accurately understand what took place and who is responsible, it’s necessary to scan through these possessions and break them down for an equitable assessment.

*I am analyzing the nine offensive possessions from the 5:53 mark to the 1:17 mark. After that, the Sixers sought quick-hitting scores or 3s, neither of which are Embiid’s forte.*

First possession: Tobias Harris misses a pull-up 3

Embiid returns to the court as the Sixers design a baseline out-of-bounds action for Harris in the corner. Following a pair of subpar screens from Embiid, Harris patrols the wing and has Embiid posting up Jaylen Brown, with Jayson Tatum lurking along the baseline to help or deter the entry pass. Just as Embiid begins to establish post position, Harris launches a semi-contested pull-up 3.

It’s reasonable to suggest Harris was hesitant to feed Embiid because of Tatum shading from the right side. But when Embiid has a mismatch like that, more often than not, the savvy decision is to, at the very least, provide him a touch. While the shot clock had ticked under 10 seconds, there was probably enough time to see what the NBA’s best post player could generate against a pair of smaller wings.

A difficult pull-up jumper will always be there. Although, Embiid should be more demonstrative in calling for the ball and in sealing off Brown behind him. One ball fake before the entry would’ve created space to execute it.

Perhaps, Marcus Smart digs down and the simple kick-out to Matisse Thybulle spurs a ball reversal for an open 3. Maybe Grant Williams grows antsy and leaves Harris, leading to an open spot-up 3. With Tatum ignoring his assignment in Shake Milton, Embiid might fling a skip pass — he flashed more complex post reads during seeding games — to the weak-side for a Milton or Alec Burks shot.

There’s a chance he’s swarmed and surrenders possession or reverts to a difficult fade-away over multiple bodies. A touch for Embiid in this situation doesn’t guarantee a high-quality look, it simply increases the likelihood and that is paramount.

Among the 12 possessions, this isn’t the most damning of them, but he and Harris must prioritize a post touch for him. Harris doesn’t provide his star teammate the time to post up, even if Embiid is a bit slow organizing himself. The actual result is one the Sixers can produce whenever they please and doesn’t stress the defense in any way, something Philadelphia often fails to accomplish.

Second possession: Alec Burks hits a pull-up jumper

The process on this play is sound. Burks patiently snakes around the screen from Embiid, who rolls with just enough gusto to occupy both Gordon Hayward and Daniel Theis. That split-second of confusion allows Burks the requisite real estate to trigger a mid-range pull-up. While a mid-range jumper isn’t preferable, it’s a shot Burks gravitates toward. Ideally, he’s commanding Theis’ attention long enough to generate a true switch before feeding Embiid, though Tatum is stalking the weak-side primed to pounce.

This is another shot the Sixers can create at any point during the possession’s 24-second lifespan and opting for it at the 11-second mark is a bit ill-advised. But the fact it’s derived in part from Embiid’s roll gravity is beneficial and ensures he’s involved to a degree. If Brett Brown is certain more post-ups for Embiid isn’t the solution and maintains the late-game pick-and-rolls prevalent Monday, Embiid will have to roll inside with purpose, which he typically fails to do. Room for significant improvement persists, though. Otherwise, these possessions will alienate him from the offense in crucial situations.

Third possession: Josh Richardson is blocked at the rim

Josh Richardson is a good role player who has struggled this season. Some of it is his own doing. Much of it stems from the Sixers miscasting him as an on-ball creator, magnifying his decision-making issues, both as a scorer and passer. Such a flaw is evident on the pick-and-roll above.

He and Embiid conduct a side ball-screen, and Richardson snakes the pick, likely in an attempt to create distance between himself and Tatum on the drive. Embiid, before trotting into the lane, bides his time as Richardson veers toward the middle. On the weak-side, Burks and Thybulle swap spots to station the better shooter in the corner for a kick-out pass from Richardson if necessary. But they’re late to complete the repositioning and Burks is backpedaling to the corner when Richardson tees up for a lay-in. Tatum easily erases it because he’s been tracking the play with ease the entire time.

Richardson’s decision-making is the culprit and it’s not confined to the shot itself. The downfall begins from the outset, when he weaves to the middle, rerouting Embiid’s rolling path and cutting off the angle for the pocket pass.

If Richardson stays on the right side and gives Embiid the space/time to roll inside, a pocket pass is available, considering Tatum would struggle to recover in front of the big man. Instead, Richardson seemingly predetermines a shot for himself and darts to the middle, isolating Embiid from the action at hand. A recalibration later in the play might even allow a pass to Embiid if Richardson reverses course or pivots to assess the possibilities.

Jaylen Brown is playing between Embiid and Harris, so it’s possible Embiid isn’t open. But Richardson operating at a measured cadence and looking Embiid’s way would probably force Brown to select one or the other, leading to either a shot at the rim or open corner 3, two much better choices than a contested shot in traffic.

Theis struggled all game against Embiid. There were multiple options presented on this sequence that could’ve generated another opportunity for Embiid to exploit that mismatch inside. Richardson’s troublesome decision-making, compounded by one choice after the other, negated that possibility.

Fourth possession: Tobias Harris misses a catch-and-shoot 3

On the first possession after a Sixers timeout, Brett Brown designed an action to give Embiid a post touch. Burks and Embiid run a window-dressing pick-and-roll that precedes Embiid setting a pin-down screen for Harris, who is a bit slow in his shot preparation and doesn’t shoot the open 3. Harris aims to create space off the bounce for a pull-up long ball, but Tatum is close enough to dissuade him.

As this is unfolding, Embiid seals off Theis on the block. He’s open with pristine position inside, though Tatum delays the swing pass with a deflection, enabling Theis to scoot Embiid a little farther from the basket. Richardson sees Embiid, but the original angle is a risky proposition because of the distance and he makes zero attempt to rectify it. But, like, this is a pass you have to perform. There is no way around it. Embiid achieved the work ahead of time and has a dude, who he has thrived against all game, sealed on his back. Take a couple aggressive dribbles, ball fake if needed and throw the pass.

The pass never arrives and Harris misfires on an open 3, a byproduct of Embiid’s post gravity, since Tatum slunk down to shade the potential entry delivery.

Fifth possession: Josh Richardson misses a catch-and-shoot 3

Burks and Embiid deploy a side pick-and-pop, with Hayward icing the ball screen. To reject the pick, Burks attempts to zip behind his back, but loses the handle and Hayward recovers, prompting him to kill his dribble. This moment of subdued chaos closes off the abbreviated passing window to Embiid, yet Burks doesn’t realize this until after Jaylen Brown has rotated for the deflection. A scramble ensues and Richardson hoists a tightly contested 3, with Burks wide open next to him and ample time to yield a higher-quality shot.

Wherever the play call originated, whether it be Burks, someone else on the floor or Brett Brown, it’s the least prudent among the five plays reviewed thus far. Aside from rare occasions, Embiid should only stretch beyond the arc to mitigate spacing problems Ben Simmons poses offensively. On this play, there are four capable shooters on the floor around him. If it’s a ball-screen, have him rumbling to the rim against Boston’s undersized quintet.

At the core of this sequence, though, are the limitations of relying on shaky decision-makers such as Burks and Richardson to commandeer perimeter creation. Burks is slow spotting Embiid open on the pop, while Richardson settles for an unnecessarily difficult triple, happenings indicative of their general shortcomings. Winning basketball games, and a series, against a very good team like the Celtics is quite onerous if your best player is ostracized on vital possessions.

Sixth possession: Tobias Harris draws a shooting foul

Once again, Burks and Embiid employ a pick-and-roll up top. Embiid tangles with Smart, delaying his roll to the rim, and Tatum aggressively pre-rotates into the paint, both of which essentially shut down Embiid as an option. In the corner, Kemba Walker anticipates the secondary action for Harris and switches the screen to prevent an open 3-pointer. Harris is patient, waits for the area to clear and applies his size advantage to overwhelm Walker, drawing a foul inside.

Initially, I was critical of Brett Brown for the call, which came following a timeout. It appeared as though Harris was the top target, but upon further viewing, the possession just unfolded in a manner not conducive to feeding Embiid inside. The counter, however, is that since it transpired shortly after a break in play, a post-up might’ve sufficed since Embiid had a pitstop to grease the wheels. But, as noted earlier, Brown isn’t in favor of increasing Embiid’s offensive touches through standard low-block affairs.

Seventh possession: Joel Embiid draws a shooting foul

Another Burks-Embiid pick-and-roll, the pet play down the stretch for Philadelphia. Both Walker and Theis crowd Burks, and Embiid wisely lets up because the pocket pass isn’t open. Theis is baited on the shot fake, leaves one hand in the cookie jar and Embiid’s foul-drawing craft nets him a trip to the line.

The crux of this possession is Embiid’s physical screen that forges an advantage for Burks. Too often, Embiid will cycle through the motions on picks. He doesn’t on this one, and it necessitates Theis to slide over as Walker re-emerges in the play.

Embiid, then, has the time and real estate to slide into space and Burks promptly slips a nifty pass.

If pick-and-rolls are the Sixers’ preferred late-game offense in this series, Embiid has to set bludgeoning screens. It lessens the strains for ball-handlers already functioning in an oversized role. With Burks looking like he could usurp Milton as the primary guard in Philadelphia’s optimal unit, Theis (or whoever anchors the middle for Boston) has to acknowledge his pull-up equity.

None of the Celtics’ centers can handle Embiid. Forcing them to toggle between containing Burks and recovering to Embiid is how this configuration can experience success in the clutch. All of it starts with Embiid’s screens enacting a genuine advantage for his guards, something that doesn’t happen enough. Adaptability is a hallmark of many superstars. Embiid must embrace the art of screening for the betterment of the Sixers, and this possession is evidence.

Eighth possession: Alec Burks misses a mid-range pull-up jumper, but follows it up with a put-back

An issue plaguing the Sixers, and many middling-to-poor offenses, is the theme of taking shots early in the clock likely attainable late in the clock. That’s the case on this Burks attempt. He was in a rhythm during the seeding games and is probably the team’s best off-the-bounce shooter at this juncture. But a mid-range pull-up early in the possession isn’t desirable, especially with Richardson wide open on the wing for 3.

Reaching the key early in the clock should produce a good shot and certainly one better than what Burks settles for. A good shot is available. Richardson is prepared to fire. An advantage was created. Capitalize on it. Don’t succumb to the defense’s wishes after you’ve compromised the scheme. Swing the ball to Richardson, force Walker to recover and see what arises.

Embiid is largely excluded from the conversation surrounding this basket, but it speaks to the flaw in play-calling and hindrance of underwhelming initiators. If the offense is funneling through an inconsistent decision-maker, at least pick the guy who’s a dominant post scorer, has exploited his assignment throughout the night and averages 28.3 points per 36 minutes on 58.5 percent true shooting for his career. Still, though, Harris deserves praise for crashing the glass to preserve the play and kudos to Burks for his put-back activity; it just wasn’t a sharp process, which is concerning with regard to projection.

Ninth possession: Tobias Harris misses a fade-away jumper

The Sixers scooped up the board following a missed 3 from Theis and pushed in transition. Harris doesn’t attempt to attack the size mismatch against Walker and relays the ball to Richardson, who bypasses an adequate look from deep. Burks collects himself and assembles the troops.

Thybulle clears out the left side for Embiid and Burks seeks to send the ball in, but has to go elsewhere with a swarming Smart crowding his airspace. By now, the offense is stalled. Harris forewent the early post-up and a chance to construct an advantage — a foundation of effective offense, Embiid didn’t assert himself for a post touch and the possession has devolved into an isolation for Harris. On a must-score scenario, the best Philadelphia summons is a mid-range fadeaway with the shot clock trickling down.

More than any other clip analyzed, this one is the most condemning of Embiid. He has hardly shouldered the load offensively in the quarter and while he’s been thrust into an array of defensive tasks down the stretch, that cannot justify his passiveness. Burks wants to hit him, but it’s too risky when he’s standing upright, not walling off Theis and hardly presenting himself as a viable candidate for the pass.

Smart mandates applause for pressuring Burks and shortening the time Embiid had to situate himself — as does Tatum for shading from behind and letting Thybulle roam free until the ball is swung up top. But those events, as well as Harris’ precarious jumper, are enabled by Embiid. After the ball lands in Richardson’s hands, Embiid needs to duck inside and keep wrangling for position; a paint touch is ideal, but his sheer post gravity might open something up, too. Instead, he becomes a reclusive spectator.

Most of the clips throughout this piece aren’t Embiid’s responsibility. This one is. He has to stamp his mark on the game’s inflection-point possession. He did not, and it was costly.

A script of characters received criticism for the Sixers’ late-game blunders. Brett Brown. Joel Embiid. Tobias Harris. Josh Richardson. Alec Burks. All of them, to varying lengths, deserved it.

Embiid needed to be more assertive on the block and make consistent contact on screens to expedite ball-screen offense. Brown should’ve dialed up a few more interior touches for his superstar, but he’s also correct that Boston’s game plan defending the block contributed to many of the Sixers’ 18 turnovers. The Celtics sent timely doubles, badgered entry passes by properly shading help and were well-positioned off the ball to complicate Embiid’s vision out of the post.

Mostly, though, Harris, Richardson and Burks underwhelmed in prioritizing Embiid as the offensive hub. Their decision-making, both in speed and outcome, fell short. Long an issue for them, believing they can rectify it is an optimistic expectation. Because, really, the late-game offense is emblematic of inherent flaws with this Sixers team. Blame Brett. Blame Joel. Blame whichever ball-handler irks you most. Just know the lack of a star perimeter creator fuels this quandary and everything else is merely a symptom.

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