“... the clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him. By holding out advantages to him, he can cause the enemy to approach of his own accord ...” — Sun Tzu
“One mark of a great soldier is that he fight on his own terms or fights not at all.” — Translation by Lionel Giles
The Sixers are not going to replace Joel Embiid. If they try, they will fail. There is a simple logic underlying this reality. The only question is whether Doc Rivers chooses to accept it.
Heading into Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinals matchup with the top-seeded Miami Heat, the logic looks as follows. The Sixers are where they are in large part because of the competitive advantage they gained from building their offense and defense around a dominant two-way center. Without Embiid, who has been ruled out for Game 1 with an orbital fracture and concussion and whose availability beyond that is uncertain at best, they do not have their greatest source of competitive advantage. To beat the Heat, they will need to replace the competitive advantage that Embiid gave them. They do not have a backup center who gives them a competitive advantage. Thus, they must increase their competitive advantage through some other means.
Or, in simpler terms, when the Known is not good enough, bet on the Unknown. The Sixers know that they cannot put DeAndre Jordan on the court for an extended period of time and field a competitive team. They know the same of Paul Millsap. They know that Paul Reed’s energy and athleticism and aggression are assets. They also know that he has averaged a personal foul every four minutes thus far in the playoffs. Thus, they know that Reed — or at least, the player he has been for this postseason — has a shelf life of about 24 minutes. This leaves them needing at least 24 minutes from somebody else.
When you break it down that way, is there really more than one option? You put your five best players on the court. You replace Embiid with a player who has a chance to make the other four players better. This may not sound like the Matisse Thybulle we have seen as late, but he is the answer. Take a page from the Toronto Raptors. When you can’t adapt to your opponent, make him adapt to you.
If I’m Rivers, this is what I’m doing. I’m starting Thybulle. I’m putting Tobias Harris on Bam Adebayo. I’m doubling when I have to. I’m daring Miami to stray from what it does best. You want to turn an athletic rim-runner into a banger? Have at it. On the defensive end, I’m telling Thybulle to fly around, to disrupt. On the offensive end, I’m telling him to set screens, to cut to the rim. If he’s behind the three-point line, I’m telling him he has no choice but to shoot. Missing, we can deal with. Abdication, we can’t.
Make Miami force it inside. If it works, and the result proves untenable, give Reed his chance. Switch it up early and switch it up often. Force them to constantly adjust.
The argument for Reed stems mostly from the dirty work that he does. Against the Raptors, he pulled down 10 offensive rebounds in just 60 minutes of court time. That’s an average of six offensive boards per 36 minutes, not far off of his career regular season pace of 5.6. Size-wise, Reed isn’t markedly overmatched by Adebayo, who is listed at 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds. Reed gives up some weight — he’s listed at 210 — but he is 6-9 with a 7-2 wingspan that is comparable to Adebayo’s, if not longer. With his leaping ability and lateral quickness, you can talk yourself into a scenario in which Reed isn’t overwhelmed by a Heat team that is much smaller than the Raptors and relies heavily on motion and screening. Hey, maybe I just talked myself into it.
Remember, though, the pertinent question isn’t who gives the Sixers the best chance to approximate a traditional big man. The question is who gives the Sixers’ the best chance to win a game on any given night. And that means the question is: Who gives you the best chance at generating some form of competitive advantage? And the answer is a small lineup that gives James Harden and Tyrese Maxey maximum room to create. They each should be pushing 20 shot attempts, unless Harris proves adept at taking Adebayo off the dribble.
Four out and five out. That’s the game the Sixers need to play. Maybe Millsap fits in there at some point. A shift, maybe two. He’s not a floor-spacer, but he’ll shoot it when necessary. The other two need to shoot it, too. Reed was 2-for-8 from three-point range during the regular season, and he has hit both of his attempts these playoffs. That’s actually not too far off Thybulle, who was 2-for-6 in 43 minutes against the Raptors after shooting .313 on 3.1 attempts per 36 minutes in the regular season. Thybulle had 14 makes in 34 attempts over his last 21 games of the regular season. But his confidence level against the Raptors looked more like the guy who made just 28.2% of his attempts during the season’s first four months.
At the same time, what choice do the Sixers have? No good ones. Only desperate ones. The goal right now is to steal a game in Miami. The Raptors showed the havoc and indecision a small lineup can wreak. Throw it all against the wall in Game 1, and then pray for Embiid.