October 19, 2018, 12:21 pm
Joel Embiid, basketball’s premier good-natured rabble-rouser, offered reporters far different fodder than normal following the Philadelphia 76ers’ season-opening loss to the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night.
“This is not a rivalry,” he said. “I don’t know our record against them, but it’s pretty bad. They always kick our ass.”
Boston, playing without Kyrie Irving as well as Gordon Hayward, needed just five games to beat heavily-favored Philadelphia in last spring’s Eastern Conference semifinals. The Celtics also took three out of four games from the Sixers during each of the past two regular seasons. Tuesday’s 18-point drubbing at T.D. Garden lowered Embiid’s personal record against Brad Stevens’ team to a dismal 2-7, easily his worst winning percentage versus any other team in the league.
A loss to the presumptive conference favorite on their home court in the first game of the season is hardly cause for alarm in a vacuum. Considering Philadelphia’s time-honored struggles against Boston, though, the frank frustration Embiid publicly conveyed after losing to the green and gold yet again is certainly understandable – especially considering his central role in those labors.
Embiid finished with 23 points, 10 rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks on Tuesday, numbers that generally reflect his stellar per-game averages from a season ago. But he also shot just 9-of-21 from the field and committed five turnovers, clearly bothered by the Celtics’ stellar individual and help defense just as he was in May.
Much was made during that series of Embiid’s inability to keep up with Al Horford and Boston’s guards on the perimeter, and for the most part, rightfully so. His relative lack of mobility was exploited on multiple occasions, sometimes quite memorably, down the stretch of close games the Sixers needed to win. When the Celtics go small, Stevens’ preference in crunch time, Embiid’s defensive impact will always be muted at the very least. Still, the fact remains that Philadelphia’s defensive rating against Boston skyrocketed to 117.3 with him off the floor, nearly 18 points higher than when the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up was in the game.
On the other side of the ball is where Embiid has routinely fallen shortest versus the Celtics, as proved the case again on Tuesday night. Horford, unfortunately for the Sixers, remains his kryptonite. Embiid has used every tool in the box to emerge as the game’s most prolific scorer from the post: skill, strength, length, quickness and more. One of those attributes – and eventually all of them, jumbled together in moves and counters and counters to counters – is too much for the vast majority of interior defenders, but not Horford. He’s too sturdy to be backed down into the rim; too long to be a non-factor with contests; too agile to be wrong-footed by crossovers and Euro-steps; and, maybe most importantly, too scouting-report sound to be victimized by Embiid’s plethora of maneuvers as an isolation scorer.
On Embiid’s first post-up of the season, from his preferred spot on the left block, Horford seemed to know exactly what was coming. For all the incredible skill Embiid possesses for a player his size, he still lacks a degree of comfort with his left hand, allowing strong post defenders to get effective contests when he spins back to his right shoulder – just as Horford did on multiple occasions Tuesday night.
Three quarters later, as the Celtics staved off a final push by the Sixers in crunch time, Horford won the battle again, twice anchoring his right leg to thwart baseline spins, then throwing Embiid’s rushed shot right back in his face.
If those possessions look familiar, it’s because they should. Embiid averaged 8.0 shots per game in last year’s playoffs with Horford as his primary defender, managing just 42.5 percent shooting and rarely getting to the line. It was the first time in Embiid’s career a defender consistently, over multiple games, got the better of him one-on-one. An even more ominous sign for Philadelphia? Horford regularly made defending Embiid look easy, sometimes with highlight-worthy results.
Horford has been elite defensively for over half a decade, and had a legitimate case for Defensive Player of the Year last season. With the exception of a fully-engaged Draymond Green, there’s an argument to be made that no player in basketball affects the entire court on defense like Horford. But until last year’s playoffs, when he made Embiid look mortal, the prevailing notion was that his greatest influence came as a help defender, cutting off driving and passing lanes away from the ball and neutralizing ball screens with seamless switching on the perimeter. No more.
It’s no knock on Embiid that he’s played poorly against Boston, basically. Horford is a monster. Embiid remains young, too, for both the sport itself and the NBA, still learning how to use his surrounding talent to exploit defenses geared toward stopping him. It’s also not like the Celtics lack the personnel and scheme discipline to frustrate him when Horford is out of the game. Aron Baynes, all chest and shoulders, is one of the several strongest players in the league, and Stevens has coached help defenders to aid him early and often when Embiid sizes him up in isolation.
Look who Terry Rozier and Horford were guarding on those possessions, by the way: Markelle Fultz and Simmons, respectively. It’s hard enough for Embiid to score on Horford alone, and hard still when matched up with Baynes, knowing aggressive help will be on its way by his second or third dribble. Creating efficient offense when defenders can sag off multiple ball handlers on the perimeter, though, presents a challenge for Embiid that he won’t be able to solve by himself. It’s on Brett Brown to position non-shooters as far away from Embiid as possible when he’s going to work in the post, and on Fultz and Simmons to find ways to stay threatening when defenders abandon them – even if, for now, reliable three-point shooting is a full season or more away.
Boston’s blend of top-tier talent, high-quality depth and stylistic versatility makes Stevens’ squad the most logical choice for Eastern Conference frontrunner. The Toronto Raptors, under the tutelage of first-year coach Nick Nurse, are largely unknown for now as we await Kawhi Leonard‘s re-acclimation to NBA basketball, and the Sixers’ collective youth and offseason roster turnover allows for many question marks of their own. But with Embiid and Simmons, Philadelphia owns theoretical trump cards the Celtics don’t have up their sleeve. If the Sixers’ wunderkind franchise cornerstones are the two best players in a postseason series, there’s no reason why they couldn’t beat Boston. The combined, raw talent of Embiid and Simmons is an amount only one other pair of teammates can match, and Steph Curry and Kevin Durant have led the Golden State Warriors to back-to-back championships.
But Philadelphia, the season-opener and second round of last year’s playoffs made abundantly clear, has a major hurdle to clear before even thinking about a potential title tilt with the Warriors. And until Embiid figures out Horford and the Celtics, it sure seems like the Sixers will be unable to do it.