TORONTO — Joel Embiid has called himself the most unstoppable player in the league.
On most nights, against most teams and most opposing centers, that’s a fair assessment. In the Sixers’ 108-95 loss to Marc Gasol and the Raptors in Game 1 at Scotiabank Arena Saturday night (see observations), that was not the case.
You can talk about Embiid's achy knee or fitness level, but Gasol’s physical post defense was the biggest reason Embiid went 5 of 18 and finished with just 16 points. Gasol forced Embiid into tough, contested shots all night.
It’s a matchup Embiid has not fared well in during his young career. Embiid has never scored more than 20 points in a matchup against Gasol and has shot 34 percent in those games. Gasol hasn’t exactly lit it up against Embiid offensively, but Toronto will surely take that trade off.
“You have to give credit to Marc Gasol, he was the Defensive Player of the Year [in 2012-13] for a reason,” Brett Brown said. “I thought Serge (Ibaka) came in and did a good job athletically, especially making it difficult for Joel. I have to help him more. I think getting him into the post different ways, freeing him up a little bit more than we did is something that I have to look at. But I give Toronto credit for their defensive effort tonight.”
Aside from Gasol, the Raptors did an excellent job with their help defense, especially with Embiid. On the few possessions Embiid was able to beat Gasol on a post move, there was another defender ready to try to affect the shot at the rim.
The Sixers knew they weren’t taking on the Brooklyn Nets anymore and Saturday was a painful reminder. Toronto did an excellent job pressuring the basketball on the perimeter as well, making it more difficult for the Sixers to make simple entry passes to their All-Star center.
Embiid was the most physically dominant player on the floor in the Brooklyn series. Young center Jarrett Allen was just completely overmatched in every contest.
At 7-foot-1 and 255 pounds and with a wealth of NBA experience against some of the best bigs in the NBA, Gasol is not.
“Like I said this morning, he was a Defensive Player of the Year and they have two former Defensive Players of the Year [with Kawhi Leonard],” Embiid said. “He just takes that whole defense to another level.”
When the Raptors pulled the trigger on a deal for the 34-year-old center, it was met with mixed reviews. Those who lauded Toronto for the trade pointed specifically to this matchup. For at least one game, it looks like a master stroke by general manager Masai Ujiri.
Luckily for the Sixers, it is just one game and Embiid is way too good to be kept down for an entire series. They now have a day to work out the kinks before trying to even the series in Toronto Monday night.
The other piece of good news is Embiid’s physical health. He’s off the injury report and looked like he was moving fine during Game 1. It’s just a matter of playing at the level he’s capable.
“I’m OK, I’m good,” Embiid said. “Obviously, Raptors are way better than the Nets but we're down. I’m sure we’re going to come back. We’re down 0-1, so I’m definitely going to adjust, everyone’s going to adjust.”
If the Sixers want to even things up in the series, Embiid will have to overcome a historically unfavorable matchup.
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