"Joel Embiid is so distracted, in my opinion, by this MVP
thing... he's not there tonight."
That was the opening statement from analyst Charles Barkley
during TNT's halftime show. At this point, the Miami Heat held a
56-44 lead over the Philadelphia 76ers. Embiid had 6 points (on 6
shots) and a trio of twos: 2 rebounds, 2 assists and 2
Barkley pointed to Embiid's lack of aggression, and wondered if
he was able to channel his alleged frustration.
"Ernie [Johnson], when you are mad about something, it can work
both ways. It's working the wrong way for Joel Embiid tonight. He
is so distracted... Derek Smith, Rick Mahorn, and Dan
Marjerle, they told me, man, 'Dude, you're playing
like crap. Get your head out your a** and play
better.' Someone needs to tell [Embiid] that."
Strong words, strong take. However, it's a take that ignores a
couple of things.
1) Embiid shouldn't be playing right now, and I'd wager he
wouldn't be if his current set of injuries — a torn ligament in his
thumb and an orbital fracture that's forced him to wear a
hammer-proof mask, while also recovering from a freaking
concussion — occured during the regular season. Though fans
pretend otherwise, injury recovery isn't linear! Sometimes you feel
great, other times you're in pain! Add in a hard bump he took
during a rebound fight with Dewayne Dedmon, and, yeah, Embiid
probably wasn't his best!
2) Aside from Embiid's physical state, he wasn't on the court
using 2K's practice mode. There was a basketball team on the other
side hoping to limit his effectiveness. They
should probably be commended for doing that in
Actually, let's focus on the second point for a
Embiid finished Game 5 with 17 points on 7 of 12 shooting. His
All-Star running mate, James Harden, racked up a modest 14-6-4 line
while shooting 5 of 13 from the field. Normally a duo that lives at
the free-throw line, they combined for 6 free throw attempts.
What on earth happened?
The big picture takeaway: the Heat chose a different way to
defend Harden-Embiid ball screens.
Embiid had set 597 picks for Harden since his Sixers debut,
excluding Tuesday night's Game 5, per Second Spectrum. They
generated a monstrous 1.18 points per possession (PPP) on direct
plays; for reference, the Utah Jazz had the NBA's best offense with
a slightly lower mark (1.16 PPP).
They're one of 18 duos with at least 300 picks under their belt
in that time frame. Only two pairings — Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton
(456 picks, 1.29 PPP), Trae Young and Clint Capela (626, 1.21 PPP)
— were more effective on direct hookups.
Teams have been searching for answers since the Sixers traded
for the bearded fella. With two players as skilled, as crafty and
as different (Embiid's a towering 7-footer, Harden a brick wall at
6-foot-5) as them, each scheme poses a different set of
Sending two to the ball hasn't been fruitful. Harden's too good
of a passer, and Embiid's too dominant as a scorer to feed him
short-roll opportunities. Playing drop can be problematic if the
screen navigation, gap defense and help defense aren't working in
Switching has been the simplest, erase-the-gaps solution for
teams. It's the most frequent coverage the Sixers duo has seen. But
that's feeding Harden a big, and Embiid a smaller guy. Despite
early concerns about Harden, the
Sixers are now scoring over a point per possession when their star
tandem gets a switch, per Second Spectrum.
That was the primary method the Heat went with in Game 3 and 4.
With a smaller body consistently placed on Embiid after a switch,
the Heat had to work extra hard to make sure the Sixers couldn't
exploit it. That meant fronting Embiid on the block. And with those
fronts, the Heat had to send an extra defender to help on the
It's hard to send two bodies to Embiid while restricting space
for Harden drives. To do that while also staying attached to Tobias
Harris and being in position to contain Tyrese Maxey,
aaaaand keeping tabs on cut-master Danny Green, is a
losing battle. You're asking your defense to be perfect at that
point. The Heat are elite, but they aren't perfect.
In Game 5, they decided to effectively kill the switch. The
Harden-Embiid duo connected for 16 picks. The Heat only switched
three of them; of those three switches, only one of them came
within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock.
PJ Tucker was tasked with ducking under screens against Harden,
basically daring him to shoot from deep. With Tucker playing more
conservatively, Bam Adebayo was able to stay attached to Embiid
whenever he attempted to roll to the basket.
With this strategy, the Heat were able to turn things into more
of a 2-on-2 affair. If Harden couldn't get downhill, the Heat
didn't have to completely shift their defense. That means smaller
or flat-out eliminated cracks for Harris or Maxey to attack.
Take this early possession in Game 5. The Sixers are looking to
set up an empty-corner ball-screen for Harden and Embiid. If a
switch is forced, the Heat would have to do some digging,
figuratively and literally, to make the SIxers work for a good
look. Instead, Tucker baits Harden into a pull-up by ducking under
the screen, and still gets a good contest on the shot.
The Heat will live with that.
Harden knocks down a three on the possession below, but look at
the rest of the Heat's defense. More importantly, look at the other
three Sixers. They're stationary. Without Harden putting pressure
on the rim, there's no need for the Heat to sell out. Butler shows
a body at the nail, but that's about it.
The Heat will live with that.
One more example, this time from the fourth quarter.
It's Victor Oladipo (heck of a series for him) and Adebayo
working in tandem. Oladipo does a great job of reconnecting with
Harden. Adebayo is dropping to take away the roll from Embiid.
Butler is peeled in for help, but there's no pressing threat here.
The Heat don't have to scramble.
There are counters to be made if you're the Sixers. On the
possession above, Maxey could either lift to the wing, or get
deeper in the corner to really stress Butler out as a help
defender. Having one shooter on that side doesn't have the same
effect if he's basically in line with Butler.
As my co-host Steve Jones Jr. mentioned on the
latest episode of The Dunker
Spot, the Sixers can counter drop coverage by having Embiid
flip his angle and rescreen if the initial pick doesn't work.
They did try it early in the first quarter, and
you can see the kind of help the Heat shows from there.
Tucker does a great job of fighting with Embiid, and the
possession ultimately peters out from there, but there's a path to
making that work.
But it's going to be up to the Sixers to counter the Heat's
counter. They have to put the Heat back in rotation like they did
in Games 3 and 4.
If Philadelphia can't, everyone on that side will have something
to be mad about.