ORLANDO — Regardless of whom the other four Philadelphia 76ers on the floor, Joel Embiid, the large shadow looming in the middle as arguably the NBA’s best center, is what makes this team a legitimate threat to beat the Celtics in their first-round playoff series.
All season Boston has taken a patchwork approach to its center position because it lacks a traditional post presence. The Celtics traded Aron Baynes to Phoenix. Daniel Theis is a strong defender and has improved as a shooter but lacks the size to contain dominant big men.
Enes Kanter can pose problems offensively with his scoring at the rim and rebounding, but he struggles to defend. Second-year big man Robert Williams is athletic and runs the floor well, but he’s slight and poses no physical match for the 7-foot, 280-pound Embiid.
The Celtics have to determine how to defend Embiid and not let him: 1) Score at the rim consistently; and 2) Get to the free throw line more than nine times per game (his season average is 8.5).
The nightmare is what occurred in the Celtics’ 112-106 loss against the Miami Heat in a seeding game Aug. 4, when they were unable to contain Bam Adebayo and sent him to the free throw line 18 times. It squashed any chances of a Celtics’ rally and caused Boston great frustration when Miami got in the bonus and tossed the ball into Adebayo.
Embiid is a more skilled version of Adebayo and the Celtics are well aware of his potential to take over the series. Of course, Embiid is coming off a subpar season and his mercurial attitude and inconsistent motivation is one of the reasons the 76ers are the sixth seed after being a popular pick to reach the NBA Finals.
But he is easily capable of a 30-20 (points-rebounds) game and with the 76ers perimeter shooters opening up the floor with their effective 3-point shooting, the Celtics could be in for a challenging series. Celtics coach Brad Stevens admitted Philadelphia’s size is a concern, even without 6-foot-10 inch All-Star guard/forward Ben Simmons, who will miss this series following knee surgery.
“We just have to do our job; everybody has to do their job,” said Jaylen Brown. “Embiid is a one-of-a-kind type of talent that you don’t see very often. We have to do our job, our best to slow him down and [make him] have a tough night. He’s going to come out and dominate and own space and we’ve got to execute our game plan and hopefully he has an off night, an off couple of nights.”
Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said he is considering starting 6-5 rookie Matisse Thybulle in place of guard Shake Milton, likely to defend Jayson Tatum or Brown. It gives the 76ers even more size in the backcourt and another premium defender.
Thybulle is also a 35.7 percent 3-point shooter, giving the club another perimeter weapon. Stevens is wary of the possibility of Embiid with four shooters surrounding him.
“Embiid is one of the best bigs in the league,” he said. “[Al] Horford is tremendous as well. [Tobias] Harris is a big wing, on down the line. They’ve got big long guards. I’ve said this a few times this week. Simmons is an outstanding player, but without him now they’re posting those guys and they’ve got four shooters around Embiid all the time, makes it extremely difficult to play against. They’ve played games, especially on that [offensive] end, without Simmons all year. They’re a very, very difficult matchup for anyone and their size creates challenges on both ends of the floor.”
Embiid hasn’t spoken publicly about the series. He averaged 30.0 points and 13.5 rebounds in the first four seeding games before resting and playing limited minutes in the final three. The Celtics are not taking this series lightly, despite being the favorites. The 76ers defeated Boston three out of four times this season, so they have the confidence.
“We don’t care about anybody else’s opinion but ours,” Harris said. “We’re confident internally in our group. We know what we bring to the table. We expect a lot from one another. We’ve got a great vibe to how we’ve been playing. We’re there. We know they’re talented and have a lot of talented wings that can score the ball but it’s all about our physicality.
“We have the most dominant big man in the game, using Joel on the block and having him go to work. That’s about all the intel I can give you right now.”
Just like Harris, the Celtics won’t reveal any of their plans against Embiid. If you recall in the playoff series two years ago, the Celtics used a defense to expose Simmons’ shooting deficiencies and that adjustment won them the series. What will the Celtics have in store for Embiid?
Said Stevens on Embiid: “He’s outstanding. You give him [just] one look, you’re probably in trouble.”
Given the two teams’ history, Embiid’s career numbers against Boston (23.3 points, 12.8 rebounds) and the Celtics struggles guarding imposing big men, the 76ers will not be overlooked in this series.
“I think it’s going to be a good series,” Brown said. “Without Ben Simmons a lot of people are counting them out and those guys are looking over there and smiling at that. They’re going to come out ready to play, ready to execute, ready to be physical and we have to be ready right along with them.”