Sometimes, history repeats itself.
For the second time in four postseasons, Joel Embiid dominated a key Game 3 victory against the Toronto Raptors, headlined by a 33-point outing. This occasion, though, came on the road and required 52 minutes, 59.1 seconds to be decided. Rather than restful moments on the bench as a blowout win concluded, Embiid wrapped up this one with jubilant celebration.
Securing a commanding 3-0 lead demanded a two-way masterclass from Embiid, especially after Toronto’s lead spiked to 17 early in the second quarter. While five points on 2-of-5 shooting and four turnovers in the first half resembles nothing of a two-way masterclass, the superstar center, after intermission, highlighted precisely why he’s been an MVP finalist in consecutive years.
He scored 28 points on 10-of-15 shooting, including the shot of his career thus far, displayed illustrious defensive versatility and played all but 2.5 minutes following the break.
In the first half, Embiid grappled with Toronto’s well-timed help on his post touches and deferred to James Harden, who was successfully generating paint touches and scoring efficiently. But Embiid’s passivity bogged down Philadelphia’s collective offense, which notched only 46 points before halftime. So, he leapt out of the gates for 18 of the Sixers’ 28 third-quarter points.
Philadelphia’s Game 3 rotation alongside Embiid of Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, Georges Niang, Paul Reed and Shake Milton touts considerable shooting and attacking threats (save for Reed, who doesn’t play with Embiid). To help unlock Embiid’s scoring in the second half, post touches were eschewed in favor of more face-up reps at the elbows and free-throw line.
Stationing him there typically invites simpler avenues to help defense for opponents, but doubling him means abandoning a shooter or driver and reading doubles in those spots is often easier than from the post. Toronto usually elected for single coverage and he feasted. Whether he exploited his size advantage by rising over the top for jumpers or driving to the rim, the Raptors’ lack of a traditional center burned them.
This type of scoring malleability is not something Embiid wielded before last season and is one of most critical parts of his transformation from All-NBA superstar to MVP-caliber superstar. Nowadays, he’s significantly more capable of tailoring his deployment to best torch opposing schemes than he was prior to 2020-21. It’s part of why the last two playoff showings have been his best to date.
Two more cogs in his scoring development are his outside jumper returning to rookie year form and growth as pick-and-roll big man. During his first season, he shot 36.7 percent beyond the arc. From 2017-18 through 2019-20, he shot 31.1 percent. Over the last two years, that mark has climbed back to 37.3 percent.
As such, the Sixers are comfortable periodically treating him as a floor-spacer to open driving lanes for Harden, Maxey and others, which Philadelphia has embraced even more to begin these playoffs. He’s also been a really good bail-out option from deep this season, hitting 39.4 percent (26 of 66) of his triples taken during the final four seconds of the shot clock, per NBA.com.
His pick-and-roll maturation came into prominent view with the acquisition of Harden and has helped quickly integrate the star duo. He sets screens better than ever, times his pops and dives well, and shot a career-high 73 percent at the rim this season.
Both traits were featured in his second-half takeover, and Philadelphia isn’t diagramming an off-movement, game-winning three for Embiid if he’s still hovering around 31 percent. His off-ball scoring has improved immensely and proved valuable Wednesday.
Although Embiid is an accomplished regular-season defender (runner-up Defensive Player of the Year finish in 2018-19, three All-Defensive Team nods), he’s regularly dialed up the intensity and execution in the playoffs. It was certainly the case in 2018-19 and 2020-21, and early returns are indicating the same this year.
The Sixers’ defense excelled in Game 3, particularly from the third quarter onward, when Toronto stumbled its way to just 45 points. Embiid’s multifaceted chops were at the core of these efforts. During his 26.5 second-half minutes, the Raptors scored 38 points. During his 2.5-minute rest, they scored seven points.
All night, his perimeter mobility bothered Toronto’s creation endeavors, regardless of the participant. With Embiid on them, Fred VanVleet, Precious Achiuwa, Pascal Siakam and Gary Trent Jr. all struggled trying to generate preferable outcomes offensively.
Philadelphia was content switching him onto varying matchups because it knew he was equipped for them and likely wouldn’t impede his help-side presence around the hoop. His performance solidified its credence in him.
Rim protection is, of course, the pillar of Embiid’s defensive prowess. By forcing shots out of Siakam’s hands and influencing or deterring other looks throughout Game 3, he lived up to his reputation.
The Raptors didn’t consistently challenge him in the paint. According to Cleaning The Glass, only 18 percent of their shots were at the rim (30 percent in the regular season), their low-water clip among the three games this series. Embiid roamed as a helper and played off of his assignments, whom he didn’t deem an imposing long-range shooter or play-finisher.
Achiuwa has buried the Sixers from deep in their games and canned 35.9 percent of his threes this season. But it’s clear Philadelphia isn’t overly concerned about him taking those shots and has prioritized containing dribble penetration before dissuading his jumpers. That, along with Khem Birch’s highly limited scoring juice, provided Embiid the matchups to put out potential fires as a help defender, where he flourished.
From my recollection, Game 3’s second half was one of the finest prolonged stretches in Embiid’s career. Against a top-10 defense, on the road, with a chance to snag a 3-0 series lead, he was otherworldly for 26 minutes in an array of ways. His diversified scoring and preeminent defense sat front and center. The areas he rode to stardom and addressed to become an MVP candidate were evident. The only thing really absent was his improved playmaking.
Fortunately for him, it’s a responsibility Harden is entirely comfortable assuming, which enables the big fella to hone in on everything else that powers his greatness. On Wednesday, as he and the Sixers moved within a win of the second round, that’s exactly how it played out.