What to make of Celtics' performance vs. Joel Embiid

Nick Friar
February 02, 2020 - 7:07 am

Winning the game itself was important for the Celtics, of course. Losing every game of the season series to the Sixers wouldn’t bode well for their confidence heading into the postseason. Not that a 1-3 record against Philly is ideal.

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While that record is pretty ugly, one that may represent the Celtics more accurately right now is 3-0 — their record against the last three high-quality teams they’ve faced (Lakers, Heat and Sixers).

Does Boston have momentum on its side? Absolutely. Are they showing signs of growth in the process? Definitely. Those two things do not go hand-in-hand. Good shooting nights can mask flaws.

There was no better sign of the Celtics’ development than the way they handled Joel Embiid in their 116-95 win over Philly. (For a complete recap of the Celtics' win, click here.)

For one, Embiid was less of a factor on defense. That doesn’t mean he didn’t influence Boston’s approach. Quite the opposite.

Embiid only had one defensive rebound and two blocked shots. That’s because he wasn’t in the paint as much. He had to guard the perimeter, so he couldn’t clog up the middle as often as he typically does.

(It’s also important to note that Brad Wanamaker dunked on Embiid. There’s nowhere to include that fact fluidly, but it needs to be acknowledged.)

On the offensive end, Embiid saw different looks from the Celtics. Daniel Theis guarded him most of the night. Embiid fell into Jaylen Brown’s lap off of switches at points. Grant Williams was asked to mark him, too. And the 2020 NBA All-Star couldn’t find his flow, finishing with 11 points on 1-for-11 shooting (0-for-4 from three, 9-for-9 at the line).

“We threw a few guys at him. We gave him different looks,” Marcus Smart said after the win. “Not letting him get comfortable. Really making him think, even when we weren’t there, we were giving the impression that we were. He worked for everything. We just tried to wear him down as much as possible.”

Now, Brad Stevens tried to chalk up Embiid’s performance as “one of those nights.”

Sure, he won’t shoot 9.1% from the floor often. There will be a lot of times where the Celtics still do all the right things, yet Embiid will find a way to score.

But the thing is: unless he was at the free-throw line on Saturday, Embiid wasn’t finding a way to score. The Celtics made adjustments heading into the game and he could not respond.

“I think they did a good job of mixing it up,” Al Horford said about the Celtics’ defense. “We need to identify better — get him the ball in better places when we’re feeding it in there, and I think, at times, we kind of let them off the hook a little bit. But they did a good job of doubling him and doing that. He could never get into a rhythm.”

(Also, important to note Jayson Tatum posterized Horford on Saturday. Can’t ignore that either.)

To put a bow on Embiid’s frustrating night: he didn’t address the media afterward. If Embiid approached the game like it’s one game out of 82 — which is what most players strive to do — he would’ve talked after his rough night. He didn’t, which is a sign that the Celtics got to him.

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