The Embiid-Theis chess match

On Wednesday night, Joel Embiid was the best player on the court.

Forty-two points on 19 shots is an amazingly efficient night, a career-high for him against the Boston Celtics. It’s far from the first time he’s showed out from a statistical standpoint against the green and white. In August’s playoff series, he averaged 30 a game. In the 2018 Eastern Conference Semifinals, he averaged 23 and 14.

The impetus behind big nights from Embiid has been typical throughout his career: Boston routinely chooses to go slightly smaller at the 5, with guys like Al Horford and Daniel Theis drawing the assignment. Embiid feels that his advantage is deep in the post, so he tries to run the offense through himself down low.

On Wednesday, we saw the best of how that looks: 21 free throw attempts and 11-14 from inside the three-point arc. But what we also saw is why the Celtics swept Philadelphia in the first round last year. Brad Stevens knows how to mitigate his impact and put the advantage back in Boston’s hands.

Stevens has always sprinkled in trapping Embiid to get the ball out of his hands, let different guys take him for long stretches and encouraged him to shoot off the pick-and-pop to keep him away from the basket. However, the real work is on the block and that’s where the smaller Theis deserves some credit.

Few are more physical pre-catch and fight for the block the way Theis does. Guys like Tristan Thompson bring solid physicality and hold their ground okay, but cede ground to begin with is a big no-no against a hoss like Embiid.

Thompson got buried beneath the rim too early into a possession, which resulted in a foul. These can’t happen against Embiid:

What Theis does so well is know when to be physical (pre-catch) and when to pull the chair. Guys like Embiid, with wide shoulders and long strides, operate on feel down low. When they feel their defender shading a certain direction, it triggers their mind to start their go-to moves in their arsenal based on weight and balance.

It may seem counterintuitive, but there’s value in not touching Embiid once he establishes position down low. He can’t feel for Theis, so he has to start his move with a dribble to initiate contact — that takes away the quick spins or changes of direction. It also looks like Embiid is initiating contact because, well, he is. Referees will let Theis bump a little more after contact is made because he, technically, didn’t start the physical play.

From there, Theis can toggle between pulling the chair and holding his ground. Embiid isn’t as crafty with counters and will either bury himself too low beneath the rim or pivot himself to nowhere:

Here’s where the math comes in. Every time Embiid is posting up the Celtics, Philly is also not taking a 3-pointer. Surrounding Embiid with shooters was a big part of Daryl Morey’s offseason makeover of the roster. And every time Embiid bangs away with physicality, takes contact and exhausts himself to out-muscle his man, he uses ounces of energy that aren’t there late. His legs get tired earlier, and his jumper becomes a bit less consistent.

The Celtics make sure they don’t rotate around Embiid when he goes into his pick-and-pops. They want him to shoot it — use those tired legs and keep others from getting involved. Both Theis and Javonte Green stunted short at Joel late in the game, and it produced one of the hardest clanks he’s had in a while:

In a two-point game in the closing minutes, this is the net result of a full game of wrestling down low. The legs are off, and it’s exactly the type of shot the Celts want to force.

It wasn’t a victory on Wednesday, but it felt like the typical Celtics-Sixers showdown. Embiid got his, overpowered Theis in the paint and drew a million fouls. And yet, the Sixers couldn’t ever create separation or punish the C’s on the scoreboard. Will Philly win a few of these games? Yes. But in the long run, the numbers game bears out well for the C’s. If these teams meet again in the postseason as they have two of the last three years, expect to see something similar: heavy numbers from Embiid and a close score down the stretch.

In a game where Jayson Tatum was absent and Walker on a minutes restriction, there are far more positives than negatives to take away from hanging in against a 42-point outing from their arch nemesis. Round 2 is on Friday.