Joel Embiid is already one of the NBA’s best defenders in the regular season. But when the Sixers make their way into the playoffs, he’s always gone up a gear defensively through his career. And after missing the first two games of the second round against the Heat due to a concussion, returning with a torn ligament in his right thumb and a mask after suffering an orbital fracture in the first round, he’s done exactly that yet again.
In the least shocking development ever, transitioning from DeAndre Jordan as the team’s starting center to Joel Embiid has made Sixers’ defense infinitely better. They’ve now tied the series at 2-2, powered by some huge performances from Tyrese Maxey and James Harden, much improved three-point shooting, and Embiid’s presence at both ends of the floor.
Understandably, Embiid wasn’t at his best on offense when he made his comeback in Game 3. He struggled to find his shooting stroke and had missed a week’s worth of conditioning while recovering from his concussion. In Game 4, he warmed up with 24 points on 7-of-13 shooting. Box score numbers aside, though, it’s Embiid’s defense that has been game-changing in both contests since his return.
“A lot,” Doc Rivers said when asked about how much changed with Embiid’s return in Game 3. “I mean, just his presence, obviously, to start the game. His energy, his rebounding. His ability at the basket. I’ve said it all year, you could see his timing was off a little bit. But his presence defensively, I really don’t — I don’t think he gets enough credit how good of a defensive player he is and how much he helps us. And I thought tonight, it was a lot of that.”
Embiid’s presence can be felt everywhere defensively. The Sixers have had a 102.7 defensive rating with him on the floor through his first two games against the Heat. To put that into perspective compared to what the Sixers were dealing with before Embiid came back, they had a defensive rating of 151.7 with Jordan on the floor through Games 1 and 2 (seriously).
One of the simplest ways Embiid has solidified the Sixers’ defense is with his work on the glass. He’s grabbed 11 rebounds in each of the last two games, providing the kind of reliable boxing out and energy that was lacking. After allowing 23 offensive boards over the first two games, the Sixers have only given up 15 offensive boards over the last two games.
From there, Embiid has anchored the backline of the defense like few players can. He communicates, plays quality pick-and-roll coverage whether he’s in a drop or coming to the level of the screen, can handle switching onto smaller players when needed, and frequently thwarts efforts to score at the basket.
There are countless plays where Embiid shuts down opponents’ attempts to get to the rim without needing to block shots. The possession below is an example from Game 4, as Embiid denies multiple attempts for the Heat to get to the basket. First, he shifts up the lane against Max Strus coming off a dribble hand-off, then slides back down the lane to cover P.J. Tucker’s roll. Miami resets with Jimmy Butler taking control, but Embiid is waiting on the baseline to deter a potential drive and then recovers back outside again so Tucker isn’t open for three (Embiid also knows he can fully help towards Butler as Tucker is mainly comfortable shooting threes from the corners). There’s nothing fancy from Embiid here, but he’s alert and in all the right spots at the right time:
Then, on the other hand, the following play as the Sixers were closing out Game 3 does end with more flash from Embiid — and it’s against Miami’s best players this time. The Heat use a Jimmy Butler-Bam Adebayo pick-and-roll, and Embiid steps up high against the screen and slides back down the lane with Butler to take away any possible space for a driving finish (Harden helps over on time, too). Once Butler is deterred from trying a shot himself, Embiid promptly spins around and swats Bam’s layup off the backboard:
Whether Embiid is shifting his feet at the perimeter or using his size and well-timed contests at the rim, he takes the Sixers’ pick-and-roll coverage and paint defense to a new level.
“Yeah, he’s the anchor,” Maxey said when asked about Embiid’s defensive presence after Game 3. “He’s the anchor. And he knows all the coverages. And he’s talking to us. It’s a little bit harder for DJ [DeAndre Jordan] because he came in mid-season, so everything was on the fly. But, just his presence. His presence. He’s 7-foot, 7-foot-1, and he’s a big body down there. It’s hard to go in there and drive into him. It makes it difficult for the opponent. And we really do appreciate him for that.”
Embiid has also helped contain Adebayo, who came out aggressive against Philly’s weakened defense in the first two games to average 23.5 points on 71.4 percent shooting. Adebayo had another efficient outing in Game 4 with 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting, but only shot 2-of-9 in Game 3 and has struggled to have much of his success when guarded by Embiid. The Sixers’ center has the right mix of quickness, discipline, strength and extra size to hold off Adebayo on drives and bother attempts in the paint with plays like this:
Embiid’s work on the perimeter has been just as impressive, too. In addition to stepping up to the level of ball screens and sliding his feet back down the lane, he’s also shown how agile and energetic he can be to contain opposing guards around the arc.
One way the Sixers’ have flustered Tyler Herro more through this series is by being more aggressive and throwing extra traps at him. They don’t trap here, but Embiid switches onto Herro and smothers him across the wing, which helps prompt a hurried pass and Herro sends the ball across court and out of bounds:
Of course, Embiid hasn’t been perfect in switch situations all the time. Butler has gotten the best of him at times with his crafty footwork and speed, and mid-range pull-ups to create space to score. Overall, though? He’s been terrific.
Perhaps Embiid’s finest play while switching came in the first quarter of Game 4. After picking up Victor Oladipo on a switch off a Tucker screen, Embiid forces Oladipo away from the rim and back outside to the three-point line. From there, Embiid hounds every dribble, stopping every effort Oladipo makes to try and drive back down the lane:
The Sixers’ starters have been dominant in the playoffs. The lineup of Harden, Maxey, Danny Green, Tobias Harris and Embiid has a +19.9 net rating in 162 minutes — easily the best of any lineup with at least 60 minutes played. A large part of it comes down to defense, as the starters’ 99.4 defensive rating in the playoffs is, again, the best of any lineup that’s played at least 60 minutes (this is obviously a very small sample of minutes, but to put that into perspective, Boston led the NBA with a 106.2 defensive rating this regular season).
Embiid is at the heart of it. He’s always at the heart of the Sixers’ success. And now, he’s powered through injuries to return before a series win got out of reach.
With their offense coming alive and Embiid back to anchor a rock-solid defense as well, the Sixers now find themselves with a real chance to win this series after going down 2-0. Even with multiple injuries, a mask, and offensive play that’s not at his MVP-level (yet), Embiid is still finding ways to up his game in the playoffs with absolutely stellar defense.