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April 07, 2021

The Sixers' series sweep vs. Boston is a blueprint for their playoff success

The Boston Celtics are, to be charitable, not the bogeyman they have been for the Sixers in years past. They are not a team competing for top seeding in the Eastern Conference, they are thinner than they have been at any point during the last few seasons, and they are not a two-way force of any sort, lurking in mediocrity on both offense and defense.

Still, when the Sixers sweep the Celtics in the regular season (or vice versa), that tends to mean something. And Joel Embiid understands that on a spiritual level, even if we set aside the basketball side for a second.

"You want to win this matchup, you want to play well against them, and you want to win all these games," Embiid said following Tuesday's win over Boston. "That's our rival...those are the games you really want to win. Especially for me, because I've been here for so long and that's a rivalry that's very important for me and also for the city of Philadelphia."

A win to push the Celtics under .500 for the season, then, has to feel sweet for the big fella and the rest of the gang. How did they get there? It's really rather simple.

Boston can't guard Joel Embiid

It does not always require a complicated breakdown to understand why one team can't beat another one. To say these Celtics are drawing dead against the big guy almost overstates their case to stop him. In the final meeting of the season between the two teams, Embiid shot more free throws (20) than the Celtics (18) had as a team for the evening, using a blend of power, finesse, and gamesmanship that has the Celtics grasping at air this year.

The numbers are downright comical: 38.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game in three games against the Celtics this year, with the big fella shooting a whopping 60.4 percent from the field and averaging over 18 free throws per game in those meetings. He is absolutely manhandling Boston, after years of being stifled by strong individual defenders and impactful team defense alike.

Boston did not exactly help themselves with the deadline deal they made to send Daniel Theis packing, a move that was ostensibly made to duck the luxury tax during a season where they (probably) don't view themselves as contenders. While Theis was not prime Bill Russell, he was the only guy who had a semblance of a chance in solo defense against Embiid. The Celtics are left with a series of options that can only be described as either too small or too slow, and that forces the Celtics to double team Embiid on basically every possession.

That has taken the sting out of Boston's defense, which historically has given Embiid a lot of problems even as he finds his way to big numbers in the box score. In years past, Boston has sent help from all angles and with varied timing, keeping Embiid on his toes for his complete share of the 48 minutes. Overdribbling hasn't disappeared from his game altogether, but he is much more patient as a general rule, waiting for the inevitable help defense to arrive so he can make the simple pass:

As you can see, it may not always lead to a wide-open three for a teammate. But it forces the Celtics to "pick your poison", as Doc Rivers said Tuesday night, choosing between isolating their bigs against Embiid or opening up huge passing lanes for the big guy to hit. Regardless of what Embiid sees, he says he's coming with the same mentality no matter what, though it seems obvious that he'd prefer to be the man doing damage as a scorer if it comes down to a choice.

"It doesn't really matter who has been in front of me, I just attack. Every single game I want to be aggressive, I want to get the other big in foul trouble, I want to get to the bonus early. So now, they stop playing physical, and even if they play physical, I'm going to use that to my advantage to get to the free-throw line," Embiid said. "I'm gonna create contact, guys are going to react, they're going to put their hand up there, and if I catch them slipping I'm going to get to the free-throw line."

True to his word, Embiid sliced the Celtics up with surgical precision on Tuesday night. Desperate for answers, Brad Stevens subbed in human meme Tacko Fall in the first half against Philly, and Embiid drew a foul on the very first possession when the taller man crowded his airspace.

To any critics who question the authenticity of the foul or his general commitment to grifting, Embiid will have you know that he isn't flopping and flailing, but utilizing an important skill. And it's one his head coach appreciates, crediting Embiid's ability to draw contact as a catalyst for their defense, not just a shot in the arm for their offense.

"I remember when I took the job that I thought it was really important that Joel got to the line more and Ben [Simmons] got to the line more," Rivers said Tuesday. "Joel makes the free throws, but it also sets our defense when they get to the line, and so you get two things out of that."

And what a difference a year makes on that end...

Defensive cohesion

Last season was supposed to be the defensive stranglehold version of the Sixers. They signed Al Horford, picked up Josh Richardson in a sign-and-trade deal, and brought in respected Spurs assistant (and aspiring head coach) Ime Udoka to coordinate the defensive side of the ball. Philadelphia was very good, but not great in 2019-20, and that wasn't going to cut it with an offense that was borderline offensive at times.

They have fallen from the top spot in the defensive efficiency rankings, but they are right in the mix at the top despite an extended absence for Embiid out of the All-Star break. Tuesday's meeting with the Celtics was a showcase of some of their best defensive work all season, cohesive in a way that almost masked strong individual defensive performances as one great team effort. Rivers saw room to praise them on both fronts.

"I just thought we really locked in," Rivers said. "They have three dynamic scorers, they really do, and I thought overall we locked in and guarded each one individually. I thought tonight, as good as our team defense [was], I thought we had great individual defensive performances from a lot of guys."

None of Boston's top three (Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown) had a particularly good game against Philadelphia, a rarity since the Celtics' young wing duo burst onto the scene together. This year, the Sixers have altered the script schematically and it has paid major dividends.

In years past, you knew what to expect from the Sixers on any possession where they were defending a pick-and-roll. Relying on "rearview contests" from their guards and forwards, Philly's bigs would sag toward the paint, protecting the rim while trying to encourage teams to take long twos. Mathematically, not a bad concept. In practice, however, guards like Walker would walk into open jumpers and get rolling early, with it eventually snowballing into a big night from every spot on the floor.

Under Rivers and defensive coordinator Dan Burke, the Sixers are using a different approach, toggling in and out of coverages based on the calls of the center. For Embiid, that has meant playing much higher up against the average pick-and-roll, which could compromise their defense at the rim in theory. Two major developments have helped them succeed out of this style — sharp rotations behind and around the big fella, and Embiid's conditioning allowing him to move and rotate in more reliable fashion than ever before. Those factors combine in possessions like these:

"It depends on matchups, but when you play against Boston with all the guards they have, you kinda have to be aggressive, you had to come up you have to hedge," Embiid said. "You got to be physical."

There is a running theme in Philadelphia's improvement on both ends of the floor — it all starts with trust. If Embiid does not trust his guys to make shots on the perimeter, he has said himself he is not going to be as effective against double teams. If he doesn't trust his teammates on the other end of the floor, he's going to be more reluctant to play further up against pick-and-rolls, scared that his teammates will let him down on the back end.

This group has given him every reason to put his faith in their hands. They are getting contributions all over the roster, executing rotations and positioning as well as you could ask for. These sort of possessions are a coach's dream:

If your best player is unguardable, and your defense is this in sync, you have a good chance to beat anybody. And as Embiid told TNT's Reggie Miller after the game, the belief is there for this group. It's just a matter of turning these regular-season flashes into playoff results. 

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