April 26, 2018
In Saturday's 106-102 win over the Miami Heat, complete with 26 turnovers and an overwhelming sense of dread for the Sixers' fan base, Joel Embiid did not quite look right. As Brett Brown described it before Tuesday's pivotal Game 5, he was Bill Russell on the defensive end and a guy who clearly had not played in three weeks on the other end, eight turnovers and a 2/11 performance from the field later.
This was a little concerning, given how small the margin for error is in the playoffs. Embiid serves as Philadelphia's hub on both ends of the floor more often than not, the man who anchors their defense and operates out of the post. He jostles with waves of opposing big men who often pick up fouls before he can even touch the ball. At his best he is borderline unstoppable, a free-throw machine who can kill you from everywhere on the floor.
So after that tough performance on Saturday and a lot of concern about how he can see out of his high-tech mask, Tuesday night's win was an encouraging return to form for the young big man, who bounced back nicely in his first home playoff game in Philadelphia.
The key to Embiid getting involved on Tuesday night may very well have come down to an increased comfort playing with the mask on. But before we get too deep into speculating about the role his comfort level played in the performance, it's worth noting how much assistance he got on the court from his friends.
One of the big reasons Embiid has been a turnover machine during his first two years in the league — outside of his own shortcomings and inexperience — is a personnel group that hasn't been suited to make offense easier for him. They have often lacked shooters on the perimeter and pick-and-roll handlers who could get him easy buckets diving toward the hoop, which has put a massive burden on his shoulders to go down on the low block and create something from nothing.
Things have started to change over the last few months, as Ben Simmons better understands how to compensate for his shooting weakness and veteran pickups have bolstered their shooting from the bench. Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova are not special players in a vacuum, but they guarantee Philadelphia's ability to have shooting on the floor at all times, whether it's a group full of starters or a bench-heavy unit.
"This is the future of the NBA... When you have great individual players, it doesn’t matter how old they are, they can do some special things."
– Heat guard Dwyane Wade
This is particularly important for Embiid, as the surrounding context is a lot more important for a big man on offense than it is for a great perimeter player. The calculus is a lot different for someone reliant on other players to bring the ball up the floor and initiate the offense than it is for players who do that initiating. This is part of why the value of big men has diminished in a pace-and-space league, as teams have slowly figured out the value of putting handlers all over the floor.
But basketball is still played 10 feet in the air, and scoring at the rim and the free-throw line remains essential to success. Philadelphia did an excellent job of getting Embiid going without relying on him to self-create, and it paid off in the form of an 8/14 shooting night from the field against the Heat.
Philadelphia's culture of quick ball movement has primarily benefitted the shooters over the last couple months, but Embiid is going to thrive now that he's back up and running. Post-up attempts can turn quickly into dunk opportunities, with Sixers players knowing they need to feed the big fella when he has even a little bit of separation in the paint.
The scary thing is, Embiid did a lot of his damage in lineups that didn't feature the best spacing in the world. If you're using him as a roll man, you simply need to toss him the ball at a height where other players can't get to it, which is not that difficult with his size and athleticism.
One of the things that stood out for Embiid in his early minutes against Miami was the lack of fluidity in his game. The Sixers did try to rely on him to create offense out of the post, and he fell back into the slow, methodical habits that often lead to turnovers for him. When Embiid is getting taken out of rhythm by the likes of Kelly Olynyk, things are not normal.
This sort of thing was mitigated by Embiid doing a lot of his work away from the ball and as a cutter/roller in Game 5, but when he did get the ball in attacking positions, he was a lot more purposeful with his movement.
When Embiid doesn't dawdle in the post, he is an absolute nightmare for opposing defenders to deal with. Bam Adebayo actually looked like a worthy young challenger on defense for most of Embiid's first two games back, but Embiid beat him like a drum on Tuesday night by initiating offense before the young center had any time to react.
Embiid has thrived when he finds that middle ground between instant catch-and-shoot offense and long, methodical post-ups. When his "touch time" was between 2-6 seconds on a possession, Embiid shot a whopping 60 percent from the field in the regular season. Some of that can be credited to the types of shots he takes in those scenarios — there's a lot less three-point shooting — but he is at his best when he is the one dictating the tone of a possession.
Compare that to possessions on the bookends of the spectrum, and the path to success for Embiid seems pretty clear:
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These possessions do not just come out of the post, either. Embiid has fallen in love (perhaps a bit too much) with shot fakes from the perimeter, and his dribbling into traffic can often lead to turnovers. But big men still have to meet the challenge of covering him out to the perimeter in these scenarios, which most often tilts the advantage toward Embiid. Alternatively, when a smaller player ends up in his path, it's a barbeque chicken alert.
These plays all look a bit different in terms of how Embiid is finishing or setting up his offense, but they share the same urgency and pace of play.
Pace of play and assistance from his teammates are both critical to Embiid's ultimate success. He does have the talent, though, to just straight up out-execute teams when he has it going, and there were flashes of Embiid at his best during the Game 5 victory.
Again, all due respect to Mr. Adebayo, who I thought was deserving of an All-Rookie Team spot this season, but Embiid pretty thoroughly cooked his ass on Tuesday. You can jostle with Embiid for positioning, but when you're conceding multiple inches to him and give him any degree of separation, you are asking for him to punish you with the jumper.
Seeing him hit some of these shots on Tuesday was encouraging after some initial struggles down on South Beach.
"It's like a switch goes off and he's everywhere. I don't know how he covers as much ground as he does... it's incredible."
– Sixers guard JJ Redick
The big man clearly struggled to see the court the way he usually does with the mask on, which is evident when you see him tip it on top of his head like a pair of sunglasses when he's at the free-throw line. Embiid specifically petitioned the league for a darker mask to avoid glares and vision issues, and has still bemoaned the fact that he has had to use the unique version he was allowed to wear in the playoffs.
"It’s just weird," Embiid said after practice on Monday. "My teammates were trying it. Amir [Johnson] was actually trying it. Markelle [Fultz] was trying it after practice. And they kind of saw my pain when I have to wear it. Hopefully, it gets better, but I don’t think I am getting used to it."
He could've fooled everyone with his performance on Tuesday. Some of the work he unleashed on the Heat was vintage Embiid — has he played enough games for us to say that yet? — and he made Miami defenders look helpless, even when they were able to keep up with him.
The defense has been a constant for Embiid, and he will most likely finish at or near the top of the list for Defensive Player of the Year voting for this season. Brown, a New England native, has not drawn comparisons to Bill Russell out of hyperbole. Embiid transforms what the Sixers are able to do on that end, and has done so from the moment he rejoined the team in the playoffs.
"Before I started playing here and after I signed, Brett told me there are certain sequences of a game where Jo will just say, 'No, you're not scoring at the rim.' It's like a switch goes off and he's everywhere. I don't know how he covers as much ground as he does," said JJ Redick after Game 4. "He has great timing, he knows for the most part when not to jump on shots, it's incredible."
Miami shot just over 40 percent from the field with Embiid on the court in round one, and most critically, they shot only 23.8 percent on shots less than six feet from the rim. That was a full 40 percent worse than they shot from that area of the floor overall, an absolutely preposterous gap that reflects just how dominant Embiid can be on defense.
So when he's able to get his offense going, as he did on Tuesday night, Embiid is one of the most dominant players in the league right this second. And it's why, according to Embiid and the opponents who just lost to them, the Sixers don't have to just wait for the future.
"This is the future of the NBA," Dwyane Wade said in what could be his final postgame presser. "You get to build around that, that’s what these guys have the ability to do. When you have great individual players, it doesn’t matter how old they are, they can do some special things."
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