When the Brooklyn Nets started gameplanning for their first round series against the Philadelphia 76ers, it’s clear that they had one big focus: stop Joel Embiid from scoring.
In Games 1, 2 and 3, Embiid has been smothered by Nets defenders. Before he gets the ball, when he crosses halfcourt and the second he makes an offensive move, Brooklyn is bringing double and triple teams. Jacque Vaughn’s gameplan is clearly to force other players to shoot and beat them.
In past years, that was a key part of a successful game plan to beat Philadelphia, especially in the playoffs. Embiid would often take bad shots or turn the ball over when he was doubled.
But the big man has addressed the biggest weaknesses in his game each and every season, to the point where he can handle anything thrown at him on a basketball court.
The 76ers haven’t made the conference finals in Embiid’s career; but because of his development all over the floor, which is shining already just three games into the playoffs, this year’s 76ers have the best chance in a while to make a deep postseason run.
Here is a look at the improvements Embiid has made to become a more mature, well-rounded player for the 76ers.
Through the first six seasons of his career, Embiid never averaged at least four assists. He’s now done it in consecutive seasons, putting up 4.2 assists per game both years.
His dominance as a scorer naturally has led him to find open teammates more often. Defenses, like the Nets in this playoff series, will often bring help on Embiid, allowing him to kick out for open threes or find a cutter under the rim.
Embiid is the centerpiece of the 76ers. Everything on both ends of the floor starts with his impact. His basketball IQ has made him a good playmaker as a center the past two years, and when teams like Brooklyn sabatoge him with doubles and triples, he understands where the open guys are.
Another underrated aspect about Embiid’s playmaking growth is his ability to run the floor in transition. When a 7’2, 280 lb center is sprinting down the court with some handles, he’s hard enough to stop from scoring. When he is finding teammates in transition while doing so, he’s unstoppable.
In Game 2 against the Nets, Embiid had seven assists. As the 76ers look to move on and continue a deep run, he will have to continue to manage more than one defender and pass the ball to open teammates at the right times.
Increased Effort on Glass, Defensive End
It isn’t just passing that Embiid has improved. When the playoffs start, he makes it clear that he doesn’t care about how many points he scores; he wants to impact the game in any way that will secure a win.
In the first three games of the series, that’s meant rebounding and defending. Embiid had 19 rebounds in Game 2 and 10 in Game 3, while reaching at least two blocks in all three playoff games.
At the end of the day, rebounding and defending are usually about effort. Embiid has always had the natural size and strength to succeed in both areas.
But what’s so different about Embiid this season, especially in games that matter, is that he knows when to up the intensity. In big regular season matchups and in this year’s playoffs so far, he steps up to protect the rim and crash the glass.
That basketball IQ helps him understand when to maximize his effort. For example, he had a game-saving block on Thursday against Spencer Dinwiddie toward the end of the game.
Embiid playing physical and aggressive on the glass and on the defensive end, rather than only focusing on scoring, has helped transform the 76ers into title contenders.
Drawing Contact + Learning How to Score Against Doubles
The rebounding, defense and passing from Embiid have been excellent in this series. But everyone knows he’s perhaps the game’s best scorer after notching his second-straight scoring title this year.
As he draws more than one defender, the big man has learned how to still be an efficient scorer. Getting good positioning in the post, not holding onto the ball too long and making quick, physical movements have allowed Embiid to still put the ball in the basket when he’s matched up against more than one player.
Again, the Nets have been absolutely suffocating Embiid with defenders so far. Yet, he’s still scored 20+ points in two of the three games.
Embiid will never be able to average his usual 30+ points when being defended like he has in this series. Taking less shots and focusing on efficiency within the offense is his best bet, rather than forcing tough shots.
Once again, his basketball IQ shines bright. He knows how to get to the line, especially when he has more than one player to draw a foul on, and his raw strength allows him to bully more than one player.
Embiid can certainly score against double and triple teams; added in with his all-around impact in these playoffs, and he’s the most complete player he’s ever been.
76ers’ Roster Construction is Perfect for Embiid’s Success
News flash: basketball is still a team game. Embiid can make a great pass to an open teammate, and they can miss the shot.
But the roster construction around Embiid is arguably the best its ever been. He needs maximum spacing, and almost everybody on the team is a capable three-point shooter.
What’s worked so well in this Nets series is the fact that he can draw some defenders then find an open shooter. Tobias Harris, Tyrese Maxey, PJ Tucker and James Harden, among others on the bench, get open looks because Brooklyn is throwing two or three guys on Embiid.
Defensively, all Embiid has to worry about is protecting the rim. Having guys like Tucker, De’Anthony Melton and Jalen McDaniels to guard the perimeter allows Embiid to focus on his strength on that end of the floor: blocking shots.
All in all, the 76ers have built the best roster around Embiid that he’s had in his career. In the rest of the series against the Nets and the rest of the playoffs, the likely-soon-to-be-MVP big man’s all-around development could push Philadelphia to a championship run.
Featured image courtesy of Getty Images
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