FOX Sports NBA Writer
BOSTON — During the final season break, Joel Embiid decided to up his game after another disappointing performance in the playoffs.
During the Philadelphia 76ers’ second-round loss to the Miami Heat, he averaged just 19.8 points per game with a 42.6% shot rate. He had allowed the Heat to take him off the streak through a series of aggressive fronts and rejections combined with aggressive pressure on the ball. That wasn’t an outlier either. In the playoffs, his numbers often dropped.
Therefore, Embiid decided that the post would no longer be his office. It was too easy for him to double there and too hard to get him the ball. Instead, it went to the elbows. There he could easily capture the ball and then survey the entire pitch, making it dangerous to send in extra defenders.
“Our biggest concern is always finding ways for him to get as many easy baskets as possible in the playoffs,” his coach Drew Hanlen said in an interview in September.
In the 2021-22 season, Embiid saw an increase of 9.8 times per game, according to tracking data from Second Spectrum. This year, that number dropped to 6.5. Embiid elbowed the ball 8.8 times per game, which is almost double last season, according to Second Spectrum’s tally.
The move essentially made Embiid unstoppable. He managed the best offensive season of his career — 33.1 points per game, his best of his career, at a batting average of 54.8% — and eventually earned the MVP he’d been aiming for for two years.
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The 76ers defeat the Celtics in Game 5 behind Embiid’s 33-point performance
But something funny happened during the Sixers’ current second-round game against the Boston Celtics: Embiid returned to his old office. According to Second Spectrum, he scored 13 in Game 4 and finished the game with 34 points in a tie overtime win. On Tuesday, in the Sixers’ stunning 115-103 Game 5 against the Celtics in Boston – a win that put the Sixers within one win of reaching the conference finals for the first time since 2001 – he scored 12 and ended the evening with 33 points.
“The way they defend when they come into play there’s no room to really advance and act,” Embiid said after the win when asked about the spike in post contacts. “And then, you know, they hustle me to make sure I don’t get a jump shot.”
Embiid wasn’t as efficient as he would have liked on Tuesday – he shot just 10 of 23 – but he did have 12 free throws. A number of those outings stemmed from his work down the block, where the Celtics appeared content to let him play one-on-one.
Of course, what makes Embiid great is that he can punish opponents from so many places. Take one thing away and he moves on to the next.
For example, Embiid struggled when he tried to elbow Celtics big man Al Horford a one-on-one in Game 4, and his shot even got hit three times. So the Sixers tried something different in Game 5, especially early on: They went back to their bread-and-butter Embiid James Harden pick and roll. This forced 36-year-old Horford to stand guard in space, an area where he now struggles. With the Celtics reluctant to help some of the Sixers’ shooters, Embiid managed to get casual looks at Harden Dishes.
“They played us a little differently in this game,” Harden said after the win. “They plugged the paint up to where Joel took his free jump jump shot.
“So we’ve literally seen every defense, from them switching to their bigs on a deep drop to their bigs on a tighter drop, so it just matters that we see what they’re doing do what they try.” do and then we [countering].”
That’s the secret and that’s why Embiid is close to reaching the conference finals for the first time in his career. There is not a single defense that can be thrown at him, not a magical plan that can throw him off his rhythm. He can attack one-on-one from the blocks or elbows. Harden’s presence means he now has a dance partner who can rotate defense with pick-and-rolls. The Shooting of Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris and De’Anthony Melton, plus the threat of PJ Tucker shattering the glass, mean the defense can’t sell out Embiid, which he says is key to his success at the post.
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“I think we did a good job of keeping our distance,” Embiid said on Tuesday.
The Celtics are likely to be more aggressive with their traps against Embiid in Thursday’s sixth game in Philadelphia. He’s better than he used to be at anticipating doubles teams and estimating game action, but the Celtics won’t want to go under if Embiid beats them. They’ll likely force some of the Sixers’ roleplayers to take shots.
But Embiid has also reached a stage where it may not matter what the game plan looks like and where defense can only force him to move places. His ability to attack the Celtics in a variety of ways and from multiple places shakes them and makes them falter.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s the post, the nail or somewhere on the ground,” he said after Game 5. “Just give me the ball, I have a pretty good chance of scoring and designing for my teammates.”
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Boldest Trial in Professional Sports History. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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