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January 07, 2017

Sixers-Celtics x-ray: Still very much a rookie, Embiid learns some lessons

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With Ben Simmons still unable to play, the development of Joel Embiid towers over everything else about the 2016-17 Sixers in terms of importance. Getting Embiid through a healthy season with the experience and improvement that comes from playing against NBA competition (and not 5’5” trainers and video room guys) means far more than whatever the Sixers’ final record ends up being.

Through that lens, a disappointing loss (Celtics 110, Sixers 106) can be viewed as a learning lesson for Embiid, who finished with 23 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists (4 turnovers), and 2 blocks. From strictly a box score standpoint, just another night at the office.

“I think it was a good game, there were a lot of good things that came out of it,” Brett Brown told reporters after the game and you bet that Embiid was one of those good things. Essentially a nightly occurrence, there were long flashes of brilliance from the “third-year rookie.”

But even as his great potential was on display, Embiid definitely helped contribute to the Sixers squandering an 11-point halftime with a couple of mental errors. You know, rookie mistakes.

The first area where Embiid struggled was foul trouble. The 22-year-old was actually in pretty good shape at halftime with just one foul, but then the third quarter happened. Let’s run through it:

•    FOUL #2: After a poor decision to drive right at Amir Johnson from the three-point line, Embiid was stripped cleanly by the Celtics big man. With the ball loose on the floor and Johnson holding inside positon, Embiid grabbed him. Easy call.

•    FOUL #3: Embiid powered through Johnson on a post-up, and Johnson went flailing. An easy dunk was taken away for an offensive foul, tough luck for Embiid. Post play is admittedly difficult to officiate, but this was a bad call.

•    FOUL #4: Embiid got a little aggressive contesting Kelly Olynyk’s shot and grazed him on the elbow.

•    FOUL #5: Next trip down the floor. Similar to the second foul, Embiid had no angle to drive and Olynyk baited him into an easy charge call.

Brown then took Embiid out of the game, and there was a question of whether the coach should have done so earlier. Regardless of the decision’s effect the game, my guess is that it will turn out more beneficial for the rookie in the long run.

“Sometimes he gets ahead of himself,” Brown said after the game, after qualifying the statement with all of Embiid’s positive attributes.

Embiid came into Friday averaging 5.1 fouls per-36 minutes, which doesn’t matter all that much now because he never plays 36 minutes. If and when those are ramped up, though, he needs to eliminate the third and fifth foul from his game. In those situations, you could say Embiid just has to trust the process.

The other area where Embiid could have learned a lesson was his fourth-quarter defense against Al Horford, who made three three-pointers in the last 5:17 with Embiid covering him (or to be more specific, not covering him). This included the go-ahead shot with 17 seconds left:

“I thought the guards played a big role holding the ball and making sure Horford got away,” Embiid said.

On the final play, Embiid is in an impossible spot. Olynyk is likely going to get a layup, but then again, a two only ties the game there instead of beating you. And there was definitely an element of the Celtics guards (particularly Isaiah Thomas) putting the Sixers bigs in difficult situations.

But Horford is an elite center, and Embiid found out the hard way the attention to detail it takes to keep him in check for an entire game.

“It’s a tremendous learning situation for Joel guarding a very unusual type of 5-man,” Brown said.

As we saw in Beantown on Friday, even the most unusual 5-man has a learning curve.


•    “Nobody can stop me on a switch. Especially your big ass. —Thomas. Embiid got switched onto Thomas at the end of the second quarter. IT4 hit the big man with a hesitation move, got by him, expertly slowed down and found some contact while laying the ball in.

•    “It’s funny because every time I get sick, that’s when I have a good game or I had a good first half. So hopefully I get sick more often and just come in and play.” – Embiid. If Michael Jordan had “The Flu Game,” maybe Embiid can have the much more casual “flu games.” The last time that Embiid was sick, he went for his career high. Then again, maybe it was just the Nets, who the Sixers play next on Sunday:

Extra notes

•    I always found it odd that a journeyman like Scott Skiles holds the all-time record for assists in a single game in 30 and not an all-time great like John Stockton, Jason Kidd, or Magic Johnson. Well, I’m telling you that T.J. McConnell could have had 25 assists in this game if a few more shots went down.

This was the best game of McConnell’s young career. He finished with 17 assists to 2 turnovers, and his vision was really that good.

•    Did Brown make a mistake late in the game not inserting Nerlens Noel for Ersan Ilyasova (who was, um, a little trigger-happy down the stretch) on that Horford three-ball? You could definitely argue that he did, especially because Ilyasova bungled the initial pick-and-roll coverage and put Embiid in that no-win situation.

•    One of the obvious stories of the night was Jahlil Okafor getting a DNP-CD, which has to be a first for him in his life. Boston is one of the last teams that you want to trot out two traditional bigs against. The body language doctor can report that Okafor seemed upbeat on the bench when the cameras showed him.

•    Boston averages 42 points in the paint per game, and the Sixers held them to just 18 and 34 percent two-point shooting. While it’s tempting to look at Embiid and Noel (specifically with no Okafor) and yell RIM PROTECTION to the heavens, at least for this game it felt to me like the Sixers traded sealing off the paint for getting blitzed from beyond the arc.

Those two gents sealed off the paint with five blocks, two steals, and numerous other impressive defensive plays. This was, as Sam Hinkie once put it, “violence at the rim.” But it’s also important to note that Boston shot 19-40 from three, and a lot of those were open shots.

•    Embiid Porn, incoming:

That second one seriously looked like an older kid dunking on a Nerf hoop. And yet this sequence was still probably the most impressive to me, just because it showcased the all-around game:

•    I counted three “Iverson screen the screener” plays back-to-back-to-back in the second quarter, and the first two times, the wing making the Iverson cut drove the ball instead of dumping it in to the big fella. Dario Saric scored and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot turned the ball over on his drive.

The Celts knew what was coming the third time, so Embiid freelanced and set a high ball screen instead of posting.

•    You would normally wouldn't expect the 9-25 team's fans to make noise in the 22-14 team's arena, but this was awesome.

•    Whether it’s in the pick-and-roll or dribble-handoff, the Celtics guards (Thomas and Avery Bradley) do a great job of shooting jumpers right next to their screener, a great strategy when the opposing big man (Embiid and Noel) is hanging back. The defender, which was often Nik Stauskas, simply has no space to recover back to the shooter.

Point Sauce, who was a minus-16 in 25 minutes, had rough night having to bring the ball up against the Celtics pit bulls (Brown said Bradley “sniffed blood.” And Bradley, who went 6-11 from deep, absolutely punished most little mistakes the Sixers made in the first quarter whether in transition or scramble situations.

•    The Sixers probably didn’t do enough on the offensive glass. Against the second-worst defensive rebounding team in the league, they were only able to corral 11.8 percent of their misses. That’s a really low number, and in a close game like this, just a couple of extra possessions might have been the difference.

•    In his last five games, Embiid is 48-55 from the line. That’ll play, especially when you’re elite at getting to the line.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann