Joel Embiid’s 26 points and 16 rebounds on Monday night weren’t quite good enough to lead the Sixers to a Game 1 victory over the Celtics, and he didn’t care about his stat line.
“I’ve gotta do more,” he said Monday. “Whatever the stats are, I’ve gotta do more. I’ve got one job to do — it’s to carry us.”
On NBC Sports Boston’s “Celtics Postgame Live,” Kendrick Perkins voiced the opinion that the Celtics are actually better off when Embiid plays. In 37:30 on Monday, Embiid was a minus-six. Al Horford, meanwhile, was a game-worst minus-18 in about 31 minutes as Embiid’s backup and starting frontcourt mate.
“He did OK,” Perkins said of Embiid. “Let’s not be fooled by these numbers. If I’m the Celtics, I want Joel Embiid on the floor. I give him his post-ups or whatever the case may be. For me watching the game, I like it when he’s on the floor. Let him go ahead and get his buckets. Because you know what happened? He wears down. To me, Philly looked better when he was off the floor.
“When Joel is on the floor, if I’m the Boston Celtics and I’m (head coach) Brad Stevens, I’m going in the film room and I’m going to emphasize, ‘Put Joel Embiid into pick-and-rolls. Make him guard pin downs. Make him guard dribble handoffs.’ He looked tired. After the first quarter, he was completely drained. He had zero energy on the defensive end; everything came on the offensive end. So yes, he put up 26 and 16, hats off to him. But a real eye, a real basketball mind like myself watching the game, I love it when he’s on the floor, because it helps the Celtics."
While there are valid points within Perkins’ analysis, the bulk of his view is misguided. The Sixers’ net rating is, beginning in Embiid’s rookie season, 11.9, 13.5, 11.1 and 5.3 points better when he’s on the court than when he’s off it. A major reason the disparity isn’t greater this year is that the Horford-Embiid pairing has worked poorly and sports a negative net rating. Embiid is the team’s best player and also happens to be a very difficult matchup for the Celtics. Without him, the Sixers are dependent on others to create shots, a skill few of their players possess.
Though nonstop Embiid post-ups may not be viable in the postseason against an opponent that understands that's the Sixers’ top offensive option, it’s worth noting he was the league’s most efficient post-up player and shot 7 for 9 in Game 1 when guarded by Celtics center Daniel Theis. However one feels about the Sixers’ spacing around Embiid, the idea of Boston being content to let him post up is odd.
The observation that Embiid “wore down” is fair, although to say he was “completely drained” is an exaggeration. He played approximately 43 minutes total in the Sixers’ final four seeding games because of minor left ankle and right hand injuries, so it makes sense that he didn’t look fresh and spry for the duration of a high-intensity night. The Sixers will hope that he can play himself into peak condition, and they may very well need that to happen.
Perkins’ point about how Stevens should try to force Embiid to move defensively is valid, too, though it’s again hyperbolic. The Sixers in Game 1 were content to have Embiid drop in the pick-and-roll, and they had him cede wide-open jumpers to Boston’s big men. Horford, in contrast, hedged and blitzed some pick-and-rolls. Given Embiid’s ability as a rim protector, it doesn’t seem like a terrible game plan. Boston shot 10 for 31 from three-point range, so it’s not as if they made Embiid pay over and over for dropping on pick-and-rolls with a ton of pull-up threes.
However, Perkins disagrees strongly with the concept of Embiid playing drop coverage.
“That’s why (head coach) Brett Brown needs to be fired,” he said. “You keep dropping on Jayson Tatum and watch him go for 50. You keep going with that drop and no contest and watch the Celtics get whatever they want, and they did just that.”
We’ll see if the Sixers make any adjustments to Embiid’s defensive responsibilities in Game 2. Clearly, Perkins holds the three-time All-Star to a very high standard.