2023 Playoffs: East First Round | 76ers (3) vs. Nets (6)

Playoffs Film Study: Joel Embiid pressures Nets to stake 3-0 series lead

Joel Embiid managed to pressure the Nets throughout Game 3 despite an off shooting night in Brooklyn.

Joel Embiid managed to pressure the Nets throughout Game 3 despite an off shooting night in Brooklyn.

On the surface, Game 3 of the first round series between the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets was not a good offensive game for Kia MVP finalist Joel Embiid, who scored just 14 points on 5-for-13 shooting. He got to the line for just five free throw attempts after totaling 19 through the first two games, and he had three more turnovers (5) than assists (2).

But even when he wasn’t scoring, Embiid was putting tremendous pressure on the Brooklyn defense. And that pressure is a big reason why the Sixers came away with a 102-97 victory on Thursday to take a 3-0 series lead.

Here’s a look at how Embiid’s presence on the floor made things difficult on the Nets’ defense.

1. Quick attack

Really, the Nets also put pressure on themselves with their game plan against Embiid. As was the case in Games 1 and 2, the Nets double-teamed the big man almost every time he touched the ball, even if he was 25 feet from the basket:

Joel Embiid double-teamed

There were occasions when Embiid still looked for his own shot, but for the most part, he passed out of the double-team, forcing the Nets to scramble. And while the James Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll has been a terrific weapon for the Sixers over the last 14 months, Tyrese Maxey may be the best complement for Embiid in these situations.

Harden will often stop the ball and allow the defense to recover and reset:

James Harden ball stopper

But Maxey usually goes quick, making it difficult for a defender to contain him after making a rotation:

Tyrese Maxey drive past Royce O'Neale

2. Rotating behind the double

In trading Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, the Nets assembled an ensemble of long and mobile defenders. So, while they don’t have an individual who can make things tough on Embiid, they’re built about as well as any team to scramble out of double-teams. But you have to be sharp with your rotations, and every defender has to trust the guy behind him.

On the Sixers’ first possession of the game-deciding fourth quarter, Mikal Bridges was ready with the double-team before Embiid even caught the ball, leaving Cam Johnson alone with two Sixers on the left side of the floor. When Embiid swung the ball to De’Anthony Melton, Royce O’Neale rotated behind Johnson, but Johnson didn’t commit to Melton, who had an open lane to the rim:

De'Anthony Melton dunk

On the very next possession, O’Neale bit for an Embiid pass fake and couldn’t get back to Georges Niang before he drained an open corner 3.

3. Running out of gas

In addition to requiring precision and trust, the Nets’ defensive game plan requires a ton of energy. And with Nets coach Jacque Vaughn basically trusting only six guys in his rotation, it requires a ton of energy with a high minutes load.

After the Nets took a five-point lead with a little more than two minutes left, Embiid set a dummy-ish screen for Maxey, and Bridges seemed to be waiting for Maxey to get the ball to Embiid in the high post. But Maxey took advantage by stepping into a pull-up 3, and Bridges was just a little too slow to react:

Tyrese Maxey pull-up 3-pointer

The Nets scored just 15 points on 23 fourth-quarter possessions, with the most damaging trip being the one following that Maxey 3. O’Neale fumbled the ball and on the ensuing fast break, Spencer Dinwiddie retreated toward Embiid instead of staying in front of Maxey — the guy with the ball.

Down 3-0, the Nets will be in a desperate situation entering Saturday’s Game 4 (1 ET, TNT), but they’ve been defending pretty desperately since the start of Game 1. The Sixers will surely want to end this series quickly and, as we saw on Thursday, they can do it without a big offensive game from their MVP candidate. Sometimes, his presence on the floor is enough.

John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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