We can sit here and scream until we’re blue in the face about free throws -- Joel Embiid is really good at drawing whistles; the Celtics, as a team, are not and that’s not exactly a new issue -- but here’s our big takeaway after Embiid’s big night in Philadelphia’s win in the first of two meetings on Wednesday: The Celtics need to make everything tougher for Embiid.
Sure, as Marcus Smart fumed afterwards, when a single opponent takes more free throws (21) than an entire roster (Boston had 20 attempts), it’s hard to win that game. If you’re a Celtics fan, you can grit your teeth and ponder how different this matchup might have been with a healthy Jayson Tatum and a non-minute-restricted Kemba Walker.
But the bottom line is that Boston has routinely had success against the Sixers because they’ve made Embiid work for his points, which has left him on empty late in the game. On Wednesday night, Embiid too easily got what he wanted.
Shield your eyes, the numbers are an eyesore. According to the NBA’s defensive matchup data, Embiid scored 23 points on a mere 18.1 possessions while defended by Tristan Thompson. That included shooting a perfect 7-for-7, drawing three shooting fouls, and generating 10 free throw attempts during their matchup time.
No one else fared much better. Embiid had 8 points on 3-of-6 shooting on 12.6 possessions against Theis. That included drawing two more shooting fouls. Grant Williams gave up 4 points in 2.5 possessions defended. More troubling, the Celtics forced only one measly turnover by Embiid, who they’ve routinely harassed into giveaways when they’ve had success against him in the past.
Embiid is going to get to the line and probably for a double-digit number of attempts. That’s just what he does. The NBA’s matchup data had the Celtics committing 6.3 shooting fouls per game against Embiid in last year’s playoffs and he shot a whopping 14.8 free throws per game in that series.
But Boston harassed him into shooting 45.9 percent from the floor and Embiid turned the ball over 3.8 times per game. He averaged 30 points and 12.3 rebounds and his team was swept in four games. On Wednesday night, he shot 63.1 percent (12 of 19) and encountered little resistance.
Yes, the whistles aided his cause. But Boston didn’t make things tough enough.
The Celtics trotted out Enes Kanter as a backline bruiser last season and he gleefully jousted with Embiid, taking some stress off Theis. When Theis was out there, the Celtics often sent extra bodies any time Embiid tried to put the ball on the ground and forced him to make mistakes.
That’s more difficult now. The Sixers have added shooting around the Embiid/Ben Simmons core, including Seth Curry, who didn’t play on Wednesday night. It’s riskier to blitz Embiid and the Celtics seemed to play it a bit more conservative on Wednesday.
Which is why a lot of this falls back on Thompson, Theis, and the rest of Boston’s bigs to make things as tough as possible for Embiid. After all, this is why the Celtics recruited Thompson to Boston to provide a championship-tested big man on the back line. He’s undoubtedly still learning Boston’s system and getting comfortable with his new teammates, but these matchups against star big men is when he needs to shine brightest.
A two-game set with the Sixers gives Brad Stevens 48 hours in a Philadelphia hotel to game plan for Friday's rematch. Maybe Tatum will be back. Maybe Walker will play a few more minutes. Maybe Boston will get a few more whistles.
But we’re most interested to see how the Celtics react to Embiid’s domination during Wednesday’s game. He’s going to put up a loud stat line. That’s why he’s one of the league’s top players. He’s going to shoot a ton of free throws.
But that hasn’t prevented Boston from having Philadelphia’s number in recent seasons. The Celtics can’t let Embiid make his big night look so easy.