Joel Embiid has dropped back-to-back monster games against the Hawks. In Game 1, despite losing the affair, he finished +13 in point differential, and Game 2 saw him post a +14 while securing a victory to even up the series. Plus-minus never tells a full story; however, I think his 39 and 40 points on 62% and 72% true shooting might. The big man is showing the basketball world that the center position still matters when played with his combination of size and skill. Since he’s such a threatening post player, he can bend defenses in ways few players can. This allows open shots not just for teammates but even for Embiid himself when he feels so inclined to take them. I mean, when he’s hitting these, an opposing team might as well just call it a night.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) June 9, 2021
Seriously though, as is with all great players in the league, opposing defenses have to pick something to give up as they can’t take away everything. For instance, years ago, in the Spurs-Heat Finals matchups, Popovich and the Spurs decided that to take away the paint, they’d have to go under on most screens for Lebron James and Dwyane Wade. This, of course, allowed the two to take plenty of open jump-shots, but the Spurs decided they could live with that. One year it worked, another it didn’t. Sometimes the greats just find a way, and Embiid looks like he’s one of those greats when healthy. Check out his shot chart from Game 2:
That’s a lot of made jumpers. Overall, the big man hit 7/15 of his non-dunk/layup attempts, including two threes in Game 2. When he’s feeling it from outside, there’s little an opposing defense can do; however, over the course of a full series, I’d be interested to see if the jumper continues falling at this rate. He only got up 8 rim attempts in Game 2, as it seemed the Hawks were making a concerted effort not to allow Embiid to get down low.
Most onlookers would want to make the easy adjustment to send Embiid more double teams; I’d agree. However, it’s how the Hawks double that’s important. For instance, Philly likes to post Embiid up with Simmons in the opposite dunker spot and a shooter in the corner behind Simmons. They’ll then position their other two shooters above the break. This puts the Hawks in a tough position to send a double team. The shooter in the corner was almost always the man Trae Young was guarding, causing a major predicament for Atlanta. If the Hawks send a double team from the opposite block, then Trae Young must slide down and guard Simmons. This would be less than ideal for the Hawks, of course, as Simmons may not be a scoring machine, but he will punish small guards in the paint. If you try to bring help from somewhere else or commit to doubling from the opposite block, Embiid will likely kick it back out with the Hawks in scramble mode rotationally.
In this play, Philly keeps Young on the side of Embiid, but since Trae helps too far down low to recover to the jumper, it ends in an easy look for Danny Green.
This possession Philly goes to the look I mentioned earlier, not directly attacking Trae but taking advantage of his inability to switch onto Simmons. The Hawks bring help from Bogdanovic, but it was much too late.
On the very next trip down the court, Philly comes out in the same set; this time, Capela does a better job of not giving Embiid the baseline, and Williams is showing help to negate a drive to the middle, forcing him to settle for a jumper and miss.
The problem that Embiid poses, though, is sometimes you do everything right, and he still just gets his points.
Ultimately, the Hawks don’t have much they can do against Embiid beyond forcing him into hitting tough shots. It’s all any defense can do. Perhaps some Gallo-Collins lineups to attack him defensively can be an option; I wrote yesterday how those two could unlock another level of offense for Atlanta. But regardless, this series looks to be coming down to which superstar can lift his team to the next round, and both seem to be up to the challenge.