Celtics’ defense looks mortal against a player they usually have answers for

Despite constant concerns about a lack of front court size in recent years, the Boston Celtics have been one of the better teams when it comes to slowing one of the game’s most dominant interior forces, Joel Embiid.

Embiid had previously averaged 23.3 points per game on 42.8 percent shooting in 11 career outings against the Celtics. Across three games during the 2019-20 season, those numbers dipped further to 21.3 points per game on 39.1 percent shooting. He shot just 45.9 percent in Boston’s four-game sweep of Philly in the 2020 playoffs while coughing up 3.9 turnovers a night.

Boston’s absence of size was compensated with a stifling strategy that typically saw the Celtics double Embiid off of the player who entered the ball into the post.

When looking at the alignment of the other four Sixers and how they were being defended, Boston would dare Embiid to hit the teammate in the opposite corner. Not an easy read when swarmed by two defenders, made even more difficult when trying to sneak a pass by Marcus Smart playing safety, as Embiid failed to do in the play below from Game 3.

On Wednesday night, similar doubles oddly never came, allowing Embiid to do as he pleased en route to 42 points on 12-of-19 shooting from the field and 17-of-21 from the free-throw line in less than 33 minutes of a 117-109 win over Boston.

“We got beat by a good team and a great player had a great game,” Brad Stevens said after the game. While that might be true, there were ways for Boston to avoid a second straight loss, even without the services of Jayson Tatum.

In the play below, you’ll notice that Philly sent the entry man, Tyrese Maxey in this case, through the baseline to the opposite corner, removing Jeff Teague’s ability to dig and double in the way Tatum did above.

Javonte Green arrives by the time Embiid is already rising for a layup. Unfortunate, because had the sophomore guard committed in the early stages of the play, Jaylen Brown could’ve split the difference between Tobias Harris and Danny Green with Teague doing the same between Green and Maxey.

This chain reaction would’ve forced Embiid to once again swing the tough pass to the opposite corner, a read he hasn’t always been successful at making. Smart is literally in the identical position in both clips fending off the opponent in the dunker spot, equally positioned to deny Al Horford and Ben Simmons positioning and jump out to deflect a crosscourt pass.

Maybe Embiid makes the pass and the Celtics wind up surrendering a corner three. The Sixers certainly have the shooting to make Boston pay in ways they couldn’t last year. But while a corner triple might be one of the most efficient shots in basketball, it pales in comparison to the value of a layup.

Embiid is shooting better than 70 percent within the restricted area. Tristan Thompson is an unquestionable upgrade at the center spot, but there isn’t a current NBA player who can keep Embiid from the rim in single coverage, especially when beginning his move with solid positioning.

You also have to realize that standing in the corner in this instance wasn’t Seth Curry, Danny Green, or Tobias Harris. Maxey is shooting less than 30 percent on threes this season and has missed all five of his attempts from the corner.

Recognizing personnel is key to defensive decision-making and the Celtics could’ve done better in that area against the Sixers.

Embiid’s scorching outside shooting expands the problems he poses to defenses. He’s currently the league’s best mid-range shooter, #1 in percentage (58.9 percent) among players attempting at least 4.5 shots a game.

Even if the defense can absorb enough contact to keep Embiid from the rim, his ability to rise and fire essentially means there’s no shot you should feel comfortable letting him take. Considering the roll Embiid’s been on to start the season, Boston has to be confident enough to let anyone else beat them.

That opportunity is available in the play below but the Celtics, particularly Smart, don’t act on it. Danny Green and Harris share enough proximity in the strongside corner to allow one of Smart or Green to double Embiid with the other guarding two Sixers at once until the play resets.

Neither committed and Embiid is allowed to rise for a jumper he’s been canning all season long.

In the same way Draymond Green leads Golden State’s defense, Boston’s defensive anchor must direct traffic in ways his younger teammate would never think to.

Boston’s front court was ravaged by foul trouble in this one, with each of Thompson, Daniel Theis and Grant Williams picking up five fouls in no more than 27 minutes. It was that type of overpowering performance that helped Embiid set a new career-high against the Celtics which earned Philly the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

“(Embiid) alone shot 21 free throws, we shot 20,” Smart said postgame. “Can’t beat that.”

The Celtics can’t undo the past, but the newly-implemented two-game mini-series will only have them wait until Friday night to make amends.

By that point, Tatum will hopefully be deemed eligible to return following what would be a three-game absence after contracting COVID-19. And maybe more importantly against a matchup like the 76ers, Boston’s defense will put itself in a better position to slow Embiid in ways they’ve already proven they can.