Celtics big men Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter were given a rather daunting task for Boston’s first-round playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers: Stop Joel Embiid from being the most dominant player on the court.
Despite eating a whole bunch of elbows and watching Embiid bully his way to easy buckets at times, Theis and Kanter have responded to the challenge. Even as Embiid ha averaged 30 points and 13 rebounds over the first three games of the series, the Celtics have dominated during his floor time.
It’s a big reason the Celtics are up 3-0 looking to close out a sweep of the best-of-seven series on Sunday inside the bubble.
If you saw only the raw numbers, you’d think Embiid was toying with Theis and Kanter. Embiid has scored 69 points on 24-of-46 shooting (52.2 percent) when either of those players have been the primary defender, per the NBA’s tracking data. That includes drawing 11 shooting fouls. But we’ve all seen how this series has gone. Embiid typically dominates early, gets gassed, and fades late. He’s padded his numbers in the first half and Boston has simply weathered the storm in those moments. Boston has challenged their supporting cast to beat them in those instances and they haven’t been able to do it.
The Celtics own a pristine defensive rating of 97.7 in the 44 minutes that Kanter and Embiid have shared the floor in this series. Boston’s net rating in that span is a staggering plus-29.7. Swap in Theis with Embiid on the court and Boston’s defensive rating is still a solid 100 with a plus-22.3 net rating.
Theis has been overpowered at times and, even when he holds up well, he seems to get whistled for a foul (the NBA’s war on Theis shows little signs of a peace treaty). Both Theis and Kanter have benefitted from teammates rushing over with help, which has contributed to Embiid turning the ball over 3.7 times per game.
The bottom line is that Philadelphia has been outscored by 45 points during Embiid’s floor time in this series. Kanter and Theis have combined for roughly 75 percent of the total matchup time against Embiid, with Theis logging a team-high 16:11 of matchup minutes, Kanter at 12:55, and no one else on the roster above 1:51.
Entering the season, many fretted over Boston’s lack of a true backline rim protector. How could they beat the Sixers without someone like Al Horford or Aron Baynes to match up with Embiid?
It turns out the answer was as simple as two $5 million options with different skill sets.
Kanter, for all his warts defending the pick-and-roll, can hold his own against size. Theis does the best he can and benefits from long-armed wings and feisty guards always trying to provide help. It hasn’t always looked pretty for Boston’s bigs but Embiid has been unable to take over this series, even with his loud stat lines.
Embiid has to be stronger with the ball. He has to figure out how to be a better passer (and Philly has to provide better shooting around him). Not having Ben Simmons has certainly allowed Boston to focus their defensive game plan even more on Embiid.
Theis and Kanter deserve credit for their efforts, even if they end up on the wrong side of a lot of highlights. The Celtics are showing that you don’t need elite defensive talent at the 5 to thrive against an All-NBA behemoth.
You just need a couple willing defenders who follow the scouting report and don’t get discouraged.