At the best of times, Joel Embiid is a two-way giant who shuts down the coating on defense and demoralizes the opponent on attack, hitting jump after jump and walking to the free throw line any time his man gets a little greedy. Access.
These are not the best of times. Embiid’s shot has been off all season, and he has come out of an extended absence due to COVID-19, trying to find his footing again. If ever there was a time to take a closer look at what they’re doing, it’s the moment, when they need to figure out how to help the big guy while still expecting him to carry a heavy burden. Embiid said much while available on Wednesday night’s post-match match:
“I haven’t had any easy season all season. I feel like I have to work for everything, which is why I say we have to connect.” For myself, I find ways I can have easy ways. I feel like I have to work For everything. I multiply every possession.”
Corresponding with the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night, the Sixers saw plenty of examples of things going wrong, solutions ranging from “as easy as possible” to “team building problem.” lets take alook.
The primary and most important job of a coach is simply to put the right players on the floor at any time. Fans might yell, “But take turns!” Often during the regular season, but at least they always look and care about something important.
Down the Celtics game stretch, Rivers chose to go with the Tyrese Maxey/Seth Curry/Matisse Thybulle/Tobias Harris/Joel Embiid lineup, a five-man lineup we’ve discussed in some detail recently. Thybulle was on Earth ostensibly to deal with Jayson Tatum, an understandable choice, but his presence on Earth completely destroyed Philadelphia.
We’ll start with the numbers. At 82 possessions this season, this squad has been outdone by nearly 37 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, and has scored at a rate worse than the team’s worst offense ever. Just putting Danny Green in Thiepool’s place sees her effectiveness jump with a net of 53 points for every 100 possessions, Which is hard to wrap your mind around. Even worse, that group with Thybulle didn’t defend well, so his entire raison d’être is not shown on tape.
Given that it’s a small sample, the tape doesn’t show us anything to suggest it’s a group that will work in the long run. The Celtics took a chance to double Embiid hard off the field by ignoring Thybulle, which made it difficult for Embiid to get the ball in the first place.
The problem is that Rivers didn’t try it and more than that he had other options to turn to and stop for substitutions and just keep rolling with that look anyway. The Sixers rolled with this lineup until there were only 37 seconds left in the game when Green scored the hit and immediately hit three on Philadelphia’s next possession.
Thybulle has his place on this team and in the rotation, but Rivers has to be able to see these things in real time and correct them. How does Shake Milton, who had one of the best offensive nights of anyone on the team, get out of the game at 7:30 to play and never see the floor again? To whom does this make sense? This is not a team with established stars where taking someone out of the game is a political decision. You have to ride hot hands and go with the tide.
When the Sixers deliver the ball to Embiid on the block, you’ll often see the entry pass cutting the paint off immediately after getting the ball to the big guy. This isn’t unique to the Sixers and isn’t a bad idea on paper, as it gives Embiid a quick target to hit if the defender falls behind and clears a side of the ground for the big guy to work on.
The problem is that the movement off the ball is often slow and deliberate, hardly useful as a cut, and more often than not allowing teams to use that second defender to either double Embiid immediately or crowd him when he has the ball.
In this set, Shake Milton is the man who throws the Embiid entry card. Milton’s three-point numbers are down this season, but overall, you’d rather have him available for a quick one-time kick than slide through the paint and do Philadelphia absolutely no good:
Honestly, the sad thing about this play is that this is a relatively purposeful cut compared to the average acquisition as the powerful side lane escapes the scene. Watch a full game full of Embiid’s post missions and you’ll want to blind your eyes to the lack of speed from Philadelphia.
Later in the first quarter, the same players are involved in the post-Embiid phase, and Milton is still on the strong side. Embiid ends up releasing another opposite jump he’s missing, but he’s ready for either a quick swing pass to Milton if he needs it or a relatively simple on-court pass for open play.
(Let’s ignore for a moment that Thybulle is the waterside guy and mostly overlooked by his cover, Jayson Tatum. I’m not trying to stack on the baby.)
You don’t want to have fixed goals around Embiid on every possession, and Embiid’s having reliable options to go for on Second Sight didn’t stop him from taking a confrontational leap over the Enes Kanter he missed.
And you, Tobias?
It’s easy to blame people like Thybulle, although this is a somewhat outstanding fruit. No one expects the Thybulle to be a reliable recording or floor-breaker option when it matters, and the Sixers only hope that shooting variance will swing in their favour any time he’s on the ground.
It’s a different kind of calculus when we start talking about Tobias Harris, who was left alone on numerous occasions throughout the Boston game in the lobbying service of Embiid. The Celtics calculated that leaving Harris alone on the ocean, where he often hesitates to shoot even when looking at the basket, was a reasonable way to attack Philadelphia.
Harris’ anemia shooting numbers this season lend credence to that notion. This is his worst year since he was 21 with the Orlando Magic in 2013-14, with Harris firing 29.8 percent of three for Philly seven years and three teams later. Missing Thybulle’s footage and ignoring is one thing, their $30 million striker doing so is another.
Even on the successful property, Embiid faced pressure as a result of Harris’ part of Boston’s game plan. In Embiid’s last shot of the game, a bucket over team double, Seth Curry’s Marcus Smart helps out all the people to double the big man, with Jayson Tatum sliding into position to help Curry before Embiid takes and shoots.
A snapshot of the acquisition center shows what we got here:
This is amazing It is a possession where the slash may actually help embedied and crime. If Harris can get Jason Tatum to dive toward the edge, Curry’s kick becomes workable. If anyone else moves to cover that area, other scroll lanes open.
Again, this does not mean that all other persons are to be held responsible for Embiid’s issues and deficiencies. Smart sends in the help here because Embiid is their franchise player, but also because teams understand that Embiid can gain tunnel vision, choosing to raise shots or try to make mistakes rather than trusting his teammates and using double teams against an opponent. He’s not the only superstar to go into hero ball mode, but as a post-centre player, Embiid is also not equipped like a lot of the other franchise players to handle that pressure and dribbling in tricky situations.
To use an example from earlier in Wednesday’s game, Danny Green cut his usual baseline on possession in the third quarter, with Robert Williams leaving him to send an extra body to Embiid as Green made his way into the corner. Already committed to the goalscorer’s mentality, Embiid never considered hitting Green here even though it was one of the easiest passes he could make all season:
At least in the case of Embiid, these woeful offensive performances can be offset by a high-level defense on the other end. No such luck with Harris, which puts a lot of pressure on him to be a creative and flexible piece at the end of the offensive floor.
There are health-related reasons to believe that Harris is not the same now. Like Embiid, he had a symptomatic COVID condition and spent time on the shelf as a result, as well as numerous bumps and bruises that forced him to miss pre-season games and practices. Losing an absolutely no blast is fatal to Harris, who often profiles with a name Just strong enough and Just Fast enough to beat smaller or slower opponents. It is not now.
Regardless, they need him to play the purposeful, purposeful basketball he flashed early last season, when Rivers poked his ear and got him back on track. Unlike Thybulle, there is no chance that Harris will be sitting down at a critical time, so they need him to find themselves and find themselves quickly.
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