Sun, Dec 15, 2019

Joel Embiid, the all-world center Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown calls their crown jewel, went scoreless for the first time in his career on Monday night. In a 101-96 loss at Scotiabank Arena, the Toronto Raptors held him to 0-for-11 shooting, with five fouls and four turnovers, including two miscues on consecutive possessions with about two minutes left in the fourth quarter when the Sixers had a two-point lead. Embiid missed all four of his 3-pointers and all three of his free throws.   

In that Philadelphia didn’t score a single point in the final four minutes, it was reminiscent of its worst moments in the second round of last season’s playoffs, in which the Raptors strangled its halfcourt offense. This time, however, Toronto did not have Kawhi Leonard, and, due to injury, it did not have Kyle Lowry or Serge Ibaka, either. And rather than the Sixers combusting every time their franchise player went to the bench, they were minus-nine in his 32 minutes and plus-four in the remaining 16. 

Everybody has bad nights. Superstars, however, are generally expected to avoid truly awful ones. “I can’t have that type of production,” Embiid said, via my colleague Michael Kaskey-Blomain. But let’s imagine he had made one of those free throws and one field goal, thereby avoiding headlines like the one at the top of this story. If that were the case, would Embiid’s poor performance even be worth discussing?

I say yes, in the context of Philadelphia’s so-so offense, which is 15th in the league and way below average aesthetically. The Sixers have scored an identical 107.8 points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the court and off it, an indication that, despite looking completely unguardable at times, he has not been dominating on a consistent basis the way his skills and size suggest he should. Had he looked just as uncomfortable, indecisive and unable to punish the Raptors for sending double teams, it would have been relevant even if he had managed to score double digits and escape the arena with a win. 

In fairness to Philadelphia and Embiid, other teams have had trouble dealing with Toronto swarming their stars. In three consecutive games this month, all without Lowry and Ibaka, the Raptors held LeBron James to 13 points on 5-for-15 shooting, their old buddy Kawhi to 12 points on 2-for-11 shooting (with nine turnovers!) and Damian Lillard to nine points on 2-for-12 shooting. 

“Defensively they’re everywhere,” Embiid told reporters, via the Toronto Sun‘s Ryan Wolstat. “They’re so long and they make sure they pack the paint. And tonight we made no shots, and when you are not making shots and you play against a team like that, it’s really hard. But we’ve got to get better, especially me.”

The Raptors are sixth in defense — and have been 0.3 points per 100 possessions better than the Sixers on that end — despite their injuries, and they were collectively brilliant against Philadelphia. They have defended the rim at an elite level all season. But the Sixers make protecting the paint easier because of their poor spacing, and Embiid is right that they have to be better. This is especially true if they run into a healthy Toronto team in the playoffs. Marc Gasol has always given Embiid trouble. 

Embiid missing literally every shot is an aberration, but him having difficulty finding rhythm and room to operate is not. By acquiring Al Horford, Philadelphia addressed its center-depth problem, but created a new one; it has scored just 104.5 points per 100 possessions with the two bigs sharing the court, a mark almost identical to the Memphis Grizzlies‘ 27th-ranked offense, with a turnover rate that would rank dead-last. That Embiid and Ben Simmons are imperfect partners on offense is not news, but it has become a massive subject of conversation again because the pieces around them make the whole thing look weirder. 

Last season,