When Joel Embiid is as dominant on offense as he was during Tuesday’s 106-96 win at Boston, it’s easy to overlook his play at the other end of the court.
Embiid scored 35 points and continually got to the free throw line against the Celtics. He had 20 free-throw attempts, or two more than Boston’s team.
Embiid has often said that defense means more to him. Following Saturday’s 122-113 home win over the Minnesota Timberwolves after missing the previous 10 games with a bone bruise in his left knee, Embiid talked about his unhappiness with his overall play, especially on the defensive end.
He had a much different tune when discussing his defense Tuesday.
“I am usually critical about myself, but I thought I was great,” Embiid said. “My goal is to one of these days win defensive player of the year and be on all-NBA defensive teams, so tonight I was definitely better than I was against Minnesota, but I still have a long way to go.”
It’s not the first time that Embiid has said he would like to be named the defensive player of the year. The reason his defense isn’t mentioned more is that his offense has been so prolific. He is second in the NBA in scoring, averaging 29.9 points per game, and first in points per 100 possessions (43.4).
Against Boston, Embiid had one blocked shot, but where he was really effective was in discouraging the Celtics from driving to the basket.
The Celtics, with just 18 free-throw attempts, were settling for jumpers instead of frequently challenging both Embiid and backup center Dwight Howard.
Sixers coach Doc Rivers credited Embiid and Howard with protecting the rim.
“[We told our players] that they’re going to be on an island a lot but to challenge the basket,” Rivers said. “And that is where Joel came in. Him and Dwight’s ability to protect the rim, [Boston] had to make some tough passes because of that and I thought that was good for us.”
On the play leading to Embiid’s blocked shot, Seth Curry lost his man, Kemba Walker, who drove to the hoop, only to have his shot swatted away by Embiid, who also got the rebound.
Embiid is 15th in the NBA in blocks per game (1.4). Another reason his defense might be overlooked is because statistically he is behind other centers in this category. He is well behind leader Myles Turner of Indiana (3.5) and two-time NBA defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert of Utah (2.9).
Blocks don’t tell the entire defensive story. Embiid may not have played at a first-team, all-NBA defensive selection pace, but he has been a major reason the Sixers are second in the NBA in defensive rating, allowing 107.1 points per 100 possessions.
Embiid didn’t play Sunday in a 116-100 loss to Memphis as the Sixers let his knee recover. Rivers said he didn’t want to play Embiid in the second game of back-to-backs after missing three weeks.
Embiid will get more time to work on his game since the Sixers don’t resume action until Friday in New Orleans against the Pelicans.