May 01, 2019
For most of the last month, the only question most have wanted to ask Joel Embiid is, "How's your knee doing?" It seemed the franchise's hopes in the playoffs would hinge on whether they could manage his pain and get him into fighting shape before another team could end their season.
A different question has emerged for Embiid in Round 2 — what is it about this matchup that makes your life so difficult, and how do you plan to attack it?
It is no secret Marc Gasol has made Embiid's life miserable over the last few years, and we spent a lot of time spelling out that difficulty before the series even began. Toronto was a house of horrors for Embiid, with the big man shooting a combined 7/25 in Games 1 and 2 against the Raptors.
But Embiid, who said earlier this season that he was the most unstoppable player in the league, does not seem concerned with his individual numbers in this series. Instead, his focus is on the simple goal they all share as a team: winning.
"Their whole defensive scheme is...they shift a lot, and you know most of the time, they're sending double and triple teams, so it's kind of hard to find myself in a one-on-one situation," Embiid said. "If they're going to keep throwing those double and triple teams, I've got to pass the ball.
"That's all I can do, either make a quick move or pass the ball. Because they're such a heavy shift team, it's kind of hard to go quick because they're coming. I just got to be patient and make the right decisions."
It is a bit easier to accept that now than it would have been for Embiid last playoffs. With a supporting cast consisting of all role players and Ben Simmons, Embiid really had no choice but to beat his head against the Boston wall in the hopes it would break. Now they have Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris to help shoulder the load, easing the pressure on Embiid to dominate.
If Embiid was a one-way player, there'd be more room for concern heading into the first home leg of the series. But a switch of defensive assignments placed Embiid on Pascal Siakam in Game 2, and it had a game-changing effect for Philadelphia. He has said many times over the years that he believes he is the league's top defensive player, and Siakam could not get anything going against him in Game 2.
Embiid was on Siakam for 41 possessions in Game 2, and the Raptors scored just 37 points as a team on those possessions, with Siakam shooting 6/17 from the field himself. That is an aberration for a player in the middle of his best season as a pro, but it's the sort of break from routine Embiid can cause on the defensive end.
Toronto will have spent the last couple days developing a gameplan to work around Philadelphia's strategy, which will bring the pressure back to Embiid and the Sixers on the offensive end. They have been far from their best on that end of the floor, and the issues extend far past the big man there.
But the maturity of another full season in the league and the reinforcement of the supporting cast seems to have eased Embiid's mind. Everyone from Philadelphia's owner on down has made it clear this team is pushing to win and win now, and Embiid says he will not let his own individual struggles impact the team's ability to win.
"I've been in these type of situations before, so I'm going to figure it out," Embiid said. "It's all about doing whatever I'm asked to. If it's setting screens, and rolling to the basket and finding guys when I'm double and triple teamed, I'm going to keep on doing that. I'm not going to force the issue because I haven't gotten a certain amount of points...if I only have to take five shots a game, but also to make sure I make the right decisions, that's what I'm going to do."
"We've got great shooters, we've got guys who can make plays, it's definitely easier to trust your teammates [when] you know you're in a situation where there's a high chance of scoring the ball or making sure we make the right pass. It goes a long way, and I'm extremely comfortable with that."
But remember this — when push came to shove and the game was on the line in the final 30 seconds of Game 2, it was Embiid who had to step up and make a play. All the big man did was deliver his biggest and best scoring move of the night.
Joel Embiid with the spin & footwork gives Sixers a 3pt lead pic.twitter.com/HMXBwNBJAS— The Render (@TheRenderNBA) April 30, 2019
So while he may have to take a backseat in this series, don't expect him to fade from view altogether.
• Wednesday's practice marked a return to the floor for Mike Scott, whose absence in Toronto forced the Sixers to make a lot of desperate decisions as a group. We saw a cameo from Furkan Korkmaz, the emergence of Greg Monroe, and Jonah Bolden sliding back into a forward's role after playing backup center for much of the season's second half.
After putting up a barrage of shots on the far end of the Sixers' practice facility, Scott was in good spirits when he met with the media on Wednesday, and he made it quite clear how excited he is to be closer to game action, even though he claimed Boban Marjanovic, "put me in the basket" during practice.
"Very anxious, I want to play, can't wait to play," Scott told reporters. "Gotta be smart and take care of the body, but hell yeah, I'm very anxious."
Scott was in the practice facility on Tuesday to get some work in during an off day for the team, which he described as a lighter session than the one he went through at practice Wednesday. The more important news is that he has graduated past the boot he had to wear and the scooter we saw him roll out of Scotiabank Arena on Monday night, and the Sixers upgraded him to questionable in advance of Game 3.
Addressing the other news of the day, Scott loved the tattoo tribute a Sixers fan paid to him this week, and he said he hooked him up with playoff tickets for Game 4 to show some love back.
"I've never had fans like this, probably since I was at [the University of Virginia]," Scott said. "They embrace me, I embrace them, I feel like I'm one of them, it's dope."
Scott added he hoped Sixers fans would "boo the hell out of" the Raptors in Game 3. Your move, Philly.
• One of the products of moving Embiid onto Siakam was finding a home for Tobias Harris on the defensive end of the floor. The Sixers ended up sticking him on Marc Gasol, and while the Sixers won the individual battle on Monday, they need to make sure they don't lose the war.
Harris is big and reasonably strong, and he does have some experience checking players from the three through five spots situationally. But taking on the challenge for full games is another story, and the Sixers are prepared for the Raptors to adjust.
"You kind of have to adapt to that," Harris said. "He's, obviously, a bigger guy than me. Taller and weighs more. But you just got to make a lot of his touches harder and force him to be out on the perimeter a lot. That's the key of emphasis I went into the game with."
"I would assume they would try to look for him down there a little bit more, but we'll see what's presented in Game 3, and we'll fight like we fought in Game 2 and [try to] adapt."
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