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Embiid credits Rivers for riding him when he's rolling originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
The best way to stop Joel Embiid these days might be to prevent him from ever touching the ball in the first place.
Like all aspects of defending Embiid, who scored a playoff career-best 36 points Saturday in a 132-103 Sixers win over the Wizards in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series, it’s not as simple as it sounds.
He’s a threat to take and make three-pointers, to drain mid-range jumpers, to run the Sixers’ offense from the top of the key. When he’s in a decision-making groove, the kind in which his observation that the game has “slowed down” for him this year is obvious to anyone watching, a catch 27 or 28 feet from the hoop may very well be trouble for an opponent.
Embiid’s teammates have found him over and over again this season during those stretches of apparent invincibility. That’s no coincidence.
“It started with (head coach Doc Rivers). That’s not something I was used to before,” Embiid said. “He came here with the mentality that, no matter who it is … if we score using a play, we’ve got to run that play until they stop it. And, even if they stop it, we’ve got to keep running that play. If I’m making shots and I’m creating shots for my teammates, if we have to run it 20 times in a row, we’re going to keep on doing it.
“So that credit goes to Coach Rivers for coming in here and making those adjustments. And in the game, I know myself, too. If I make one — even if I miss one — I always want the ball, because I feel like it’s hard to stop me, whether you send a double team or not. And if you do send a double team, I’m going to make the right play.”
Embiid’s comment resonated with something Rivers had said back on opening night. Following a Sixers win over Washington highlighted by a 15-point Embiid fourth quarter, Rivers had articulated his play-calling philosophy.
“You fall on a play and you stay with it until they stop it,” he said on Dec. 23. “I think we scored six out of seven on the same action. It’s great. I told them, ‘That’s what you do, feed the big.’ They can’t stop it, keep running it.”
Rivers isn’t the only reason for Embiid’s sustained stretches of dominance. Sharing the floor last season with Al Horford and finding it necessary at times to vacate his favorite areas certainly wasn’t helpful for Embiid. His relative lack of confidence in the outside shooting around him also played a role, albeit an intangible one. And yes, Rivers’ old-school approach has worked better for Embiid than former Sixers head coach Brett Brown, even though Brown tried to call more plays last year and Embiid led the NBA in post-ups.
It’s all contributed to Embiid being a no-brainer MVP finalist and amassing absurd statistics in the first three games of this series. He’s averaged 29.3 points on 67.4 percent shooting from the floor, 54.5 percent from three-point range. On 17 post-ups, Embiid has recorded 24 points and shot 11 for 13 from the floor, per NBA.com/Stats. In six combined matchups against Washington in the regular season and playoffs, he’s made 47 of 51 foul shots (92.2 percent).
Ben Simmons has recognized that Embiid is more willing and able to identify the open man than in years past when double teamed.
“He sees that double and he’s not always trying to score,” Simmons said. “I think that’s the one thing. He’s able to find the guys that are open and make plays by doing that. And he’s realizing, if he’s able to do that, we’re going to score every time.
“It’s tough for teams to do that every time, send that double team, because he’s getting better at passing out of the post and with his IQ, he’s able to see different things on the floor. And us helping him with certain spacing, we’re going to allow him to do his thing.”
The Wizards did not put Embiid in tremendously difficult positions. They played their most single coverage on him of any game in the series, seemingly wary of Simmons and Tobias Harris’ scoring, as well as the Sixers’ outside shooting. Washington ultimately stopped nothing, allowing Harris and Simmons to total 34 points on 15-for-24 shooting and 14 assists. Every Sixers starter besides Simmons made multiple three-pointers.
Danny Green converted a game-high five threes, all in the first half. Never one to dance around valid criticisms, Green lauded Embiid’s showing.
“His floor game was amazing tonight,” Green said. “Obviously some nights he has struggles with it — not so much (with) scoring for us, but making plays and passing out of double teams. Tonight he picked and chose his spots … made the right passes, made the right plays. And we shot well tonight. When we’re shooting like that, we’re very hard to beat.
“But I think the reason we shot so well is because we had a lot of uncontested shots and because we moved the ball so well — and because of him making the plays he made. He played a great floor game. Hopefully he continues to get better at it, because we know that other teams are … going to send the same type of double teams, same type of situations. So we’re going to need that from him. And hopefully we can continue to make shots so he can trust us to make those plays.”
If the Sixers finish off the Wizards, one imagines greater challenges than 1-on-1 matchups with Daniel Gafford, Robin Lopez and Alex Len are in Embiid’s future.
Whichever opponent is up next, expect Embiid to receive the ball time and time again during those moments when it’s evident the identity of the men guarding him doesn’t matter very much.