The Golden State Warriors certainly had their hands full against Joel Embiid.
Embiid put up 46 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists against the Warriors on 13-of-23 shooting from the field. He went to the line 22 times and made 19 of them — more than his season averages of 11.7 free-throw attempts and 10.1 free-throw makes. He scored at a highly efficient 70.4 TS%.
Embiid has certainly shot up the odds in terms of the Most Valuable Player discussion. He’s giving Nikola Jokić a run for his money, and a race that was once thought to be well within Jokić’s reach has now turned into a legitimate debate — one that has often crossed over toward the realm of toxicity.
Embiid is a force to be reckoned with, especially in the low post and in the mid-range area — particularly the “nail” (the area approximating the middle of the free-throw line). His bag is full of nimble footwork that belies his 7-foot 280-pound frame.
He also happens to be the Philadelphia 76ers’ main anchor on defense. With a corps of capable defenders at the point of attack, Embiid is the last line of defense should his teammates up front fail to contain. Sometimes, such “blowbys” are intentional — after all, few defenders in the league are as capable as Embiid at erasing or discouraging shots at the rim.
But Embiid’s defense isn’t foolproof. There’s a certain element of scheme inflexibility when it comes to Embiid, which extends to the Sixers’ overall ethos on defense.
The Sixers are limited to only a few options in terms of ballscreen coverages when Embiid’s on the floor. As much as possible, they shy away from switching, since Embiid is at his most effective whenever he’s in contain mode.
Hedging and/or blitzing also runs the risk of Embiid not being in proper position to contest shots in the paint, while also putting all the pressure on a disadvantaged backline defense to get a stop while being outnumbered.
The only viable coverages with Embiid are the multiple varieties of drop, depending on the threat level the ballhandler presents. If Embiid’s partner in pick-and-roll defense is a capable screen navigator (such as De’Anthony Melton), he’s fine with dropping back into the paint to contain any paint excursions, while also preventing the rest of his teammates from having to be put in rotation.
Occasionally, Embiid employs a higher form of drop coverage — such as screen-level step-ups — if the ballhandler is known to be a dangerous pull-up shooter such as Steph Curry. But Embiid is usually fine with parking himself at the paint in order to conserve energy and for the reasons outlined above.
While the scheme inflexibility is apparent, the Sixers happen to be really good at the limited coverages they’ve been running. Prior to their game against the Warriors, they had a 113.3 defensive rating (eight) and a 96.5 defensive rating in the half court (fifth). Both of these marks don’t take garbage time into equation, per Cleaning the Glass — so they’re obviously doing something right.
But it does make the Sixers quite vulnerable against select teams and certain situations. The Warriors have the kind of personnel to punish the Sixers’ ballscreen coverages: pull-up threats around ballscreens who also have the downhill juice to create shots in the paint.
Add to that the typical motion offense and there’s not really anything Embiid can do if the Warriors are in their bag offensively.
Case in point:
Melton does a good job shooting the gap and recovering toward Curry during the initial ballscreen — but Curry’s fake gets Melton up in the air. Curry throws the ball to Looney, who flips it back to Curry immediately, rescreens, and catches Melton clean.
With Embiid back in drop, Melton is left on an island. Curry pulls up with a clean look in front of him due to Embiid not being in position to close space.
Klay Thompson also had a possession similar to the one above: screen-rescreen action with Draymond Green against Embiid in deep drop coverage:
While the possession above was after a made basket — which allowed the Sixers to set up their half-court defense — it was what the Warriors did after hauling defensive rebounds that was of particular not.
It’s generally preferable for teams to force misses, get the rebound, and run in transition, simply because the opposing team is most likely scrambling to find the nearest man or to plainly get into a position to defend quick fastbreak actions or to shore up during the secondary break. The more you can catch your opponent trying to defend on the back foot, the better your chances are at catching them unawares.
Embiid generally doesn’t shy away from his deep-drop comfort zone while transitioning toward defense — a fact the Warriors took advantage by setting “drag” screens in transition:
With Thompson hauling in the defensive rebound, a trailing Looney comes over to set a screen on Thompson’s man (Tyrese Maxey) — the very definition of what a drag screen is. With Embiid in drop and Looney catching Maxey clean, Thompson has all the space he needs to drill the three.
Jordan Poole — who scored 33 points off the bench on 19 shots (4-of-8 on twos, 6-of-11 on threes) and 73.3 TS% — also feasted on drag screens.
Here’s one against Paul Reed, Embiid’s backup:
Reed isn’t as deep as Embiid typically is in drop coverage. He steps up higher and much closer to the arc, but not in a manner that allows Poole to blow by him. But it’s enough space for Poole to pull up and drill the shot.
This comes in play later on, when the Warriors run one of their staple half-court sets that also involve drag screens:
The set is called “51” by the Warriors, which is a double-drag-screen set with Looney setting the first screen and Curry “setting” the second screen. Curry flares out toward the wing, taking his defender with him.
Take a look at where Reed’s positioned:
With Reed higher up to prevent the previous outcome of a Poole three, Poole attacks his front foot and goes all the way to the rim. With Melton distracted by Curry’s flare toward the wing, Melton is unable to help in the form of a stunt or dig.
Kerr spammed “51” (peep at him holding up five fingers with one hand and one finger with the other) in crunch time to target Embiid’s drop coverage:
Other than drag screens, Steve Kerr also came up with a wildly creative set that took advantage of Embiid’s drop coverage. Just look at this beauty of an after-timeout play (ATO):
There are several moving parts — Curry intiates a wing exchange with Moses Moody, followed by a reversal up top to Jonathan Kuminga, while at the same time Green sets a “Zipper” screen for Poole — but the main meat of the action happens during this sequence:
Curry setting the backscreen on Embiid is what makes this play a “Spain” pick-and-roll set, which is a hard counter to drop coverage. Embiid is unable to rotate to cover Poole’s drive, while Melton is hesitant to commit due to the threat of Kuminga behind him rolling to the rim (with an empty corner, to boot — meaning that no help is coming from that side of the floor).
That leaves Georges Niang as the only obstacle in Poole’s path — and Niang is nowhere close to being the kind of rim deterrent that Embiid is.
The Warriors continue to roll at home, where they’ve won nine straight games. This win was against a tough Sixers team that had won nine of their last 10 games.
Embiid is a force of nature who rarely presents any kind of visible weakness. But the Warriors were able to find the smallest of cracks, exploit it, and use it to drag Embiid and the Sixers into the deepest depths.