Joel Embiid

In quest for an Embiid stopper, Celtics best option might be what they've got

In quest for an Embiid stopper, Celtics best option might be what they've got

Joel Embiid’s dominant two-way performance Thursday night in Boston won’t do much to ease fans who remain convinced that Celtics bigs aren't stout enough to hold up in an Eastern Conference in which many of Boston’s primary rivals — including Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Indiana, and Toronto — have All-Star talent at frontcourt positions.

From this vantage point, Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis held up about as well as could be reasonably expected. Yes, Embiid put up 38 points and 13 rebounds, all while limiting his turnovers and made some a couple key defensive plays late in the game (including absolutely smothering a Theis dunk attempt). 

Still, Kanter and Theis both put up season highs for scoring while pairing up for 36 points and 14 rebounds. As coach Brad Stevens suggested after the game, " I guess I'd take 38 to 36 in that matchup.”

The lingering question is whether the Celtics, now 0-2 against Philadelphia this season, should feel confident in their ability to match up with the 76ers should the two teams cross paths in the postseason.

Two more regular-season matchups — one in Philadelphia early in the new calendar year (Jan. 9) and another in Boston on Feb. 1 — will offer more chances for the Celtics to gauge where they stand against Philly. Both sides were missing key parts — the Celtics without Marcus Smart; Sixers without Al Horford — and full-strength rosters will offer a better sense of whether Boston’s frontcourt can hold up in a seven-game series.

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Ultimately, the Celtics might have no other choice. A lack of tradable contracts means they can’t deal for a top-line center without sending out one of the team's core players. Theis, at 6-8, despite giving up size in matchups against players such as Embiid, has been excellent this season and the Celtics need a 5-man that is content to do the little things and take open shots when they come in the rhythm of the offense.

Looking around the league, particularly at those players that might be able to best joust with Embiid, it’s hard to find a player that the Celtics could reasonably target as an in-season addition.

In the quest to identify players that have best held up against Embiid in recent seasons, we parsed the NBA’s defensive tracking data. First, we examined every player that has defended Embiid for at least 20 partial possessions this year to find players that have had the best individual success. Ten players emerge, a snapshot of the names: 

MARC GASOL

The dreamiest of in-season additions — just ask the defending champion Raptors — Gasol has defended Embiid for a total of 14:23 this season and has allowed a measly 2 points and ZERO field goals on 12 shot attempts while creating seven turnovers. Some Celtics fans came into the season dreaming of a scenario in which the Raptors struggled early, started moving pieces, and maybe Gasol and his $25.6 million salary somehow landed on the buyout market. That’s definitely not happening now with the Raptors right on Boston’s heels and playing some incredibly inspired ball this season during a Kawhi-less defense of their title.

TAJ GIBSON

One of the more interesting names on the list, the 34-year-old Gibson has only 6 minutes of matchup minutes this season against Embiid but has limited him to 6 points on 2-of-9 shooting. Embiid’s offensive rating is just 100 in the 25 minutes that Gibson and Embiid have shared the court this season, all the more impressive given the sorry state of the Knicks. Gibson is earning $9 million this season with a nonguaranteed salary. He’s exactly the sort of piece that the Knicks should yearn to move for future assets. The question is whether Gibson’s success is a small sample and whether you get enough value out of an in-season acquisition. On the positive side, he is a 10-year veteran with eight years of playoff experience and played with Kanter in Oklahoma City.

DON’T EVEN BOTHER DREAMING ABOUT THESE GUYS

Among the top Embiid stoppers this year: Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert (pictured), All-NBA big man Nikola Jokic, and Knicks swat-happy youngster Mitchell Robinson. You’re not getting any of these guys, so let’s just move right along despite the fact that they’ve all held Embiid to 37.5 percent shooting or less.

TRISTAN THOMPSON

Slowly becoming the leader in the “If he gets bought out, the Celtics should swoop him up!” references among Boston fans. But the data isn’t quite as bullish. Thompson has defended Embiid on 50.7 partial possessions this season and allowed 31 points on 12-of-21 shooting over 14 minutes of matchup time. That’s the second-worst mark among high-volume defenders (in front of only LaMarcus Aldridge). Thompson is still an intriguing option because of his rebounding abilities, his playoff experience, and his potential to impact the offense as a fourth or fifth option. Alas, Thompson has his limitation — as seen in Boston when he went 1-for-7 at the free-throw line and committed five turnovers. He was minus-22 in a game in which he went 8-for-11 with 17 points and 11 rebounds.

STEVEN ADAMS

A popular option among Celtics fans entering the season, at least when ignoring the fact that he’s making $25.8 million this season. Boston would have to move someone like Hayward as part of a trade. That’s not happening, and especially not with the way Adams has defended Embiid this season. In nine minutes of matchup time, Embiid has put up 24 points on 9-of-16 shooting, making four triples against Adams, too. Data from 2017-18 season confirms his struggles, Embiid shooting 60 percent (12 of 20) in 19:37 of matchup time.

AND BACK TO THE CELTICS

Then, of course, there is Kanter (pictured), who has limited Embiid to 38.9 percent shooting (7 of 18) in 12 minutes of matchup time this season. Kanter held up particularly well on Thursday, especially when you consider that Embiid shot 77.8 percent against all other Celtics defenders. For all the complaints about Kanter’s defense, it’s his struggles in the pick-and-roll that fall in the spotlight and he actually does well in post-up situations.

It's fair to be skeptical about whether Kanter can hold the fort for a seven-game series. Kanter has been on the floor for 46 of Embiid’s 60 minutes against the Celtics this season and the Philadelphia big man has an offensive rating of 109.3 in that span. The thing is Embiid’s offensive rating spikes to an absurd 142.9 in the 14 minutes with Theis as primary defender instead of Kanter.

Having Smart might help, though Philadelphia’s offensive rating was still elite (114.7) in the 16 minutes that Embiid and Smart shared the court in the first matchup.

To be certain, Boston did not lose either of the first two matchups against Philadelphia because of an inability to defend Embiid. He hurt Boston not only with his scoring Thursday but with an ability to pass out of double teams that Boston sent and the Celtics simply have to be crisper when they commit extra bodies.

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Is there anyone else out there available at a reasonable price that could help Boston’s frontcourt defense? We rolled the defensive data back to last year’s regular-season and crunched to players with around 20 Embiid field-goal attempts defended. Yet again, a who’s who of Eastern Conference bigs emerged from Horford (14-37 FG, 37.8 percent) to Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic (13-31, 41.9 percent) to Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner (a combined 25-52, 48 percent). 

Some of the names that fared well and might be available would include Cody Zeller (11-26, 42.3 percent in 21 minutes of matchup time) and Willie Cauley-Stein (8-20, 40 percent in 13 minutes). One completely random wild card to throw in here: Old friend Ante Zizic, who defended Embiid for 12:16 last season and limited him to 5-of-17 shooting (29.4 percent) with five turnovers. It was the lowest shooting percentage among any player with at least 15 shot attempts defended. A small sample size? Probably. Though, in a measly minute of defensive matchup time earlier this season, Embiid went scoreless while missing two shots.

The question becomes whether the Celtics should sacrifice future draft assets and risk tweaking the chemistry on the team in hopes of what might only be a marginal upgrade. It’s also prudent to want to see this team at full strength before declaring just how much of an issue the big-man depth could be. 

Remember, too, that Robert Williams' development could be huge here. Grant Williams’ ability to play small-ball 5 against bigs could dictate the desire for a move. Maybe Vincent Poirier gets an opportunity to show whether he can joust further out.

For now, the best option seems to be for the Celtics to stick with what they’ve got and find a longer-term plan to beef up that 5 spot, especially given the talent their primary conference rivals have in their frontcourts.


 

NBA Notebook: Could Marcus Morris be on the move from the woeful Knicks?

NBA Notebook: Could Marcus Morris be on the move from the woeful Knicks?

BOSTON -- For teams who have gone through a bit of buyer’s remorse after signing players this summer, Dec. 15 can’t get here soon enough. 

That’s the earliest teams can move on from deals they signed this offseason. 

Still, in conversations with various league officials and scouts, don’t expect to see much if any movement right away. 

“No one is in this huge rush to get from under a deal or anything like that,” a league executive told NBC Sports Boston. “There will be a deal done here and there, but I don’t think you’ll see any blockbuster deals involving the guys who signed in the summer.”

One player I’m told to keep an eye on is ex-Celtics forward Marcus Morris, now with the New York Knicks. 

He’s having a career season and the organization loves the tough, rugged brand of basketball that he brings to the floor.

“But is he worth more to the Knicks on their roster, or as a trade chip,” a Western Conference scout told NBC Sports Boston. “What’s the value for a veteran with his talents, contract and toughness?”

That’s a question the Knicks almost certainly are asking themselves as they continue to mire in a rebuild that has them again among the worst teams record-wise in the NBA. 

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And with Morris on a one-year, $15 million deal, there’s no long-term risk in bringing him in the fold if a team isn’t sure what his role would be beyond the remainder of this season. 

If Morris were to be traded, it won’t be because he just wants to latch on with a playoff contender. 

“Like I said in the beginning, I love being in New York, win, lose or draw,” Morris told reporters recently. “I’m here to try and help turn this thing around. I’m not really looking to get traded, that’s just my personal opinion.

He added, “That’s my approach, but this is the NBA. I’d rather help turn this thing around. Melo [Carmelo Anthony] said it best: Some guys aren’t built for New York. I’m built for New York. I’d rather be here. I’d rather help.”

DAVID STERN UPDATE

Thoughts and prayers go out to former NBA commissioner David Stern who underwent emergency surgery for a brain hemorrhage. 

Stern was the longest-tenured commissioner of the league, having held the post for 30 years before passing the torch to Adam Silver in 2014. 

As important as the actual players have been in the growth of the NBA globally, Stern’s imprint on the game is undeniable with games now being not just broadcasted but actually played all over the world to sell-out crowds globally. 

One of the highlights of my career covering the NBA was getting a chance to sit down 1-on-1 with then-commissioner Stern in a 2015 preseason game in Milan, Italy, pitting the Celtics against EA7 Emporio Armani. 

MORE K-LOVE TRADE RUMORS

Cleveland’s Kevin Love remains the most talked-about player likely to be on the move between now and the Feb. 6 trade deadline. 

He is in the first year of a four-year, $120.4 million contract extension which multiple league sources have indicated will make a deal involving Love tougher to come by than it should be for a player with his talents. 

But there are concerns about his health, with Love playing 60 or fewer games in each of the last three seasons. 

And with the number of years a team will have him on the books, weighing those concerns with what the Cavs are seeking in such a trade (at least one first-round pick) is going to make getting a deal done challenging to say the least. 

The team many believe will have the toughest time figuring out whether to pursue Love or not, is the Miami Heat. 

They have been one of the surprise teams in the NBA this season, but still look to be one superstar talent away from firming up their place as an NBA Finals contender. 

However, it’s no secret that they have been doing their part to clear cap space to make a run at Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo who will be an unrestricted free agent in 2021. 

However, the success of the Bucks and Antetokounmpo’s repeated desire to be in Milwaukee may lead them to try and pull the trigger on a K-Love deal which again, would only strengthen their position as one of the top teams in the East this season. 

KNICKS COACHING SEARCH

Barring a change of direction (which you know is always, always possible with this franchise), the Knicks won’t pursue a new coach until the offseason. 

Taking that approach makes a lot of sense for the Knicks, a franchise that has made more than its share of head-scratching decisions in the past decade or so. 

Mike Miller is the interim coach and should have every shot at getting this team on track even when that seems damn near impossible for several reasons. 

If he can’t, the Knicks will go into the draft with another top-shelf draft pick. 

And on the coaching front, there will be the usual cast of characters to make the rounds (Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy, Tom Thibodeau to name a few) as well as potentially a couple of new faces from the assistant coaching ranks who should get consideration, too. 

The point is, there’s no need for the Knicks to rush in hiring a new coach. 

Because whoever is on the clock, whether it be now or next November, is going to have a hard time winning even when the bar for success is as low as it is now. 

KAWHI U DO THEM LIKE THAT!

Kawhi Leonard returned to Toronto for the first time since leaving in the summer and received the kind of reception you would expect from a guy who had been there for several years - not just one. 

In that one season, Leonard delivered the ultimate prize - an NBA title. 

And because of that, he will always be loved whenever he returns to Canada. 

But more than winning, Leonard was loved because he was genuine throughout the process of his time there. 

He never gave any indication that he was going to be back, nor did he absolutely rule it out (even though we pretty much knew he was intent on returning to the West coast). 

For him, it was business. 

I play.

I win.

I go where I want to go afterward.

The way Leonard and Raptors fans handled the situation, is a blueprint for superstars of the future to follow.

Fans are going to love you forever if you win. 

If you don’t, you shouldn’t be surprised if you get some jeers mixed in with cheers upon that first trip back. And you promised them you wanted to come back and then have a change of heart… they have every reason to have a change of heart as well in how they feel about you as a player regardless of whether the reasons for your change are legit. 

And for fans, when a player comes through with the ultimate prize - an NBA title - there’s literally nothing they can do that can top that other than winning it again which would only add to their legacy. 

Enjoy the time you have a great player, knowing that if they’re in a contract year that season is all you can bank on. 

A NEW (AND SCARY) JOEL EMBIID

Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal were known for their dunks and rebounds, but the assist they threw to Joel Embiid may become the ultimate game-changer for Embiid, the Sixers and the rest of the Eastern Conference.

After criticizing Embiid for not working as hard as he should be a dominant player, he responded with an absolute crushing performance in Philly’s win over Boston which snapped the Celtics previously-unbeaten streak of 10 home wins. Embiid finished with 38 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and a ton of added respect from many who saw him taking their words and using them to get better.

No one has ever questioned Embiid’s talent. 

But his commitment to being the best version of himself, time and time again, hasn’t been there. 

We’ll see if his performance in the win over Boston was just a one-off kind of thing or whether he can truly sustain playing at the elite level that a player with his talent is capable of doing. 

If he doesn’t do it consistently, it’s not like he didn’t know what he had to do after getting called out earlier by a pair of Hall of Famers. 

FAST BREAKS

  • With a boatload of picks from the Russell Westbrook and Paul George trades, look for the Oklahoma City Thunder to be called upon to help facilitate a trade or two as the third team.
  • Denver, Phoenix and Portland are expected to be among the more aggressive teams on the trade front this season.
  • One of the more low-key deals done last summer, was the Celtics re-signing Daniel Theis to a two-year, $10 million deal. Finding a team with a starting center not on his rookie deal, making that kind of money is a steal in the NBA these days.
  • Dion Waiters was suspended a third time this season, by the Miami Heat. This suspension brings the total he’s losing this season to suspensions to about $1.4 million of his $12.1 million salary. League sources anticipate the Heat will become even more aggressive than they have been, in finding a trade partner

 

 

Joel Embiid pays Celtics fans the ultimate compliment ... but still loves silencing them

Joel Embiid pays Celtics fans the ultimate compliment ... but still loves silencing them

BOSTON -- Few professional athletes embrace hate like Joel Embiid.

The Philadelphia 76ers big man channeled recent criticism from Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal into a tour de force performance at TD Garden on Thursday night, tallying a season-high 38 points, 13 rebounds and six assists to hand the Boston Celtics their first home loss, 115-109.

Embiid also fed off the Garden crowd, which booed the big man heartily throughout the night.

The 25-year-old tipped his cap to the Boston faithful after the game, admitting the loudest crowd he's ever dealt with in an NBA game was the Garden during a second-round playoff game in 2018.

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"They've got great fans. They're loud," Embiid said. "The loudest (game) I've ever been a part of was actually here in Game 2, two years ago in the playoffs.

"We were up by 20 and they made their run. It was loud and my ears were popping. That's the loudest (it's) ever been (for me) in an arena."

The Celtics stormed back to win that game 108-103, taking a 2-0 series lead over Philly en route to a five-game series win.

A year and a half later, Boston wasn't so lucky.

Embiid had been in a bit of funk over his last few games but seemed revitalized by the hostile Garden environment, relishing in making big plays like this dagger 3-pointer in the fourth quarter:

"They talk a lot of trash, and I like that," Embiid said. "It gets me going. I had that fun mentality about me tonight. Just reacting to them and playing off it."

Boston and Philly will meet twice more this season, with the Sixers coming to the Garden again on Feb. 1. Celtics fans can boo Embiid all they want, but they should be warned that it may not have the desired effect.

"Joel really set the tone of how we were going to play today," Sixers teammate Tobias Harris added. "His energy, his interactions at timeouts and dead balls: He was the man today."

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Mavericks, which tips off Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call at 9:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.