Three assists per half. If I’m Doc Rivers, that’s my message to Joel Embiid. Write it on the white board. Send it via text. Imprint it on one of those plastic bracelets that Lance Armstrong used to make. You want to beat the Raptors? Start with that goal.
The number itself is arbitrary. The mentality is what counts. Any time Embiid has the ball in his hands, he is going to be one or two passes away from a wide-open shooter. The Raptors will be betting against the big guy’s better judgment. He needs to channel his inner Nikola Jokic and prove them wrong.
“I’m not going into the series hoping to average 40,” Embiid said on Thursday after the fourth-seeded Sixers wrapped up their second-to-last practice in preparation for Saturday’s playoff opener against the fifth-seeded Raptors at the Wells Fargo Center. “They’re going to get the ball out of my hands, so it’s all about me really not getting frustrated, keep trusting my teammates over and over, making the right plays. Doesn’t matter if it’s 10, 20 points or whatever, as long as we score, that’s my mentality. All the attention they’re going to throw on me, I’ve just got to make my teammates better.”
It sounds simple, and maybe it is. The Raptors have never been shy about who they are, not the least when the opponent is Embiid. It has been three years since Nick Nurse’s arsenal of exotic coverages frustrated the big man and provided Kawhi Leonard with all the runway he needed to carry the Raptors to a seventh-game victory over the Sixers in the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals. Since then, the only thing that has changed are the border crossing regulations. In 20 career games against Nurse’s Raptors, Embiid has shot just .397 from the field while averaging 20.0 points and 4.0 turnovers per game. To put that in more digestible terms, his average line against Toronto during that stretch is roughly 6-for-15 with 20 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 turnovers, and 7-for-9 from the foul line. That ain’t gonna get it done.
Even as Embiid has blossomed into a consensus MVP candidate over the last couple of seasons, the Raptors have retained ownership over the old No. 21, holding him to a .398 field goal percentage in six games, three of them Sixers losses, including two in the last month. Leonard and Kyle Lowry are gone, but what Toronto lacks in elite scoring punch it makes up for with its ability to blitz you to death.
“The way they defend me has never changed,” Embiid said. “They just play recklessly, sending three guys on me as soon as the ball is in the air. That made me better, honestly, over the years, playing against them and watching them. They definitely made me a better playmaker, so I enjoy playing against them. But there are still a lot of ways I can attack them.”
Embiid said on Thursday that he does not feel like he has anything to prove against the Raptors, but I beg to differ. A world in which he is the Most Valuable Player in the NBA is not consistent with a world in which the Sixers lose in the first round of the playoffs. That sort of thing has only happened twice in the last 20 years. In 2017, eventual MVP Russell Westbrook lost to James Harden’s Rockets in the first round. In 2007, Dirk Nowitzki’s 67-win Mavericks were knocked off by the pre-Steph Curry Warriors. If you really believe that Embiid is the best player in the NBA, you should be penciling the Sixers in for a victory far easier than the upset-minded pundits suggest.
So, yes, Embiid has plenty to prove. He is a different player now than he was in 2019, when the Raptors left him in tears following their last-second victory in Game 7. His technical skill in the post is light years ahead of where it was: the footwork, the feel, the finishing ability. So, too, is his understanding of his surroundings. Embiid finished the regular season averaging a career-high 4.2 assists per game, a full assist higher than his average heading into the season. The progress has not been as evident since James Harden’s arrival: Before the trade, he was averaging 4.5 assists against 3.0 turnovers, compared with 3.5 assists and 3.5 turnovers in 22 games since. But a week of film study and practice should be all that Embiid needs to take his on-court facilitation to another level.
“Going into the series, I’ve played against them enough that I kind of know how they play,” Embiid said. “If that’s what they want to do, I already know the adjustment, and I’m just going to trust my teammates.”
The Sixers need Embiid to look at this series as a personal challenge. The MVP voting does not take playoff performance into consideration, but what better way for the big man to validate his case over Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo than by showing that he can impact a game with his decision-making and passing if that’s what the game calls for him to do?
It’s something that Rivers has emphasized throughout this week of practice. In addition to their time-tested playbook against Embiid, the Raptors will undoubtedly use their switching ability against Harden. It’s on the Sixers to make the math pay.
“I’ve always said, you have to give a big man the answer to where a guy is going to be,” Rivers said. “If they’re late, that hurts his passing. Toronto is so athletic and long, we have to be there. We have to be in our spots ... some of those passes are through arms. I think sometimes as fans, and even his teammates, they think they are wide open, and they are wide open, but Joel is going through a bunch of arms and he doesn’t see it. So we have to make sure guys are in the right spots.”
It’s a fair point. In the end, though, Embiid needs to recognize that his size and his strength give him the advantage of not having to play a million miles an hour. The hallmark of an MVP is that he dictates the action. He does not allow himself to be dictated to. Granted, dictators aren’t always natural delegators. A new kind of strongman, then. That’s the goal.