Playoffs 2019 East Semifinals: Raptors (2) vs. 76ers (3)
For Sixers, Embiid's importance the only constant
In a series of swings, the one reliable theme has been the crucial role of Joel Embiid
PHILADELPHIA — There hasn’t been much consistency from game to game in the Eastern Conference semifinals series between the Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers. What has mattered in one game hasn’t mattered in the next. Each team has twice looked dominant, and two games have gone down to the wire.
The closest thing to a constant has been the importance of Joel Embiid’s presence on the floor. Never was it more important than in the Sixers’ 112-101 victory in Game 6 on Thursday, when Philly outscored Toronto 100-60 in Embiid’s 35 minutes and 33 seconds of playing time and sent the series back to Toronto for a deciding Game 7.
Embiid was healthier than he was after suffering through an illness that limited his effectiveness in Games 4 and 5. But his standard box score stats – 17 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks – were relatively unspectacular. But his plus-40, the highest mark of the postseason, tells the story.
“It’s a huge plus-minus number in a playoff game,” said Sixers coach Brett Brown. “His significance is felt all over the place.”
Single-game plus-minus isn’t always an indicator of a player’s importance. Sometimes, he’s just on the floor when a game swings in a certain direction. But a game-high plus-minus is nothing new for Embiid, who’s now a plus-133 for the playoffs, with no other Sixer better than a plus-94.
Game 6 was a game of runs, which had a lot to do with whether or not Embiid was on the floor. After Greg Monroe registered a minus-25 in 16 total minutes over the Sixers’ losses in Games 4 and 5, Brown went to Boban Marjanovic as his backup center in Game 6. Marjanovic, who had only seen garbage-time minutes since registering a minus-22 in less than 12 total minutes over Games 1 and 2, checked in for Embiid with the Sixers up three and 6:58 left in the first quarter.
The Raptors then went on a 5-0 run, with all five points being scored at the rim or at the free throw line. The lead was gone and so was Marjanovic, with Embiid checking back in with just two minutes and 23 seconds having elapsed off the clock. And over the final 4:35 of the period, the Sixers outscored the Raptors, 16-6.
At the end of the first quarter, Embiid hadn’t scored a point, but he was a plus-13 in a game his team led by eight.
“His presence,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse, “was a lot more than his baskets tonight.”
The Sixers went up by 19 early in the second quarter. But with the lead at 17, Marjanovic checked back in for Embiid at the 8:09 mark. And this time, he didn’t even last as long as he did in the first quarter. The Raptors scored on five of their next six possessions (a stretch that included two dunks and a layup), Brown called a timeout, and Embiid was back on the floor with just two minutes and 10 seconds having elapsed.
“That was a hard four minutes for Boban,” Brown said. “I felt like we pivoted out of it quickly.”
Marjanovic didn’t play again until garbage time. Mike Scott was the backup center in the second half, but that didn’t help much. With the Raptors going on another quick, 5-0 run (starting with a dunk from Kawhi Leonard), Embiid’s first third-quarter stint on the bench lasted only a minute and two seconds.
Through six games, the Sixers have outscored the Raptors by 21 points per 100 possessions in Embiid’s 192 minutes on the floor and have been outscored by 46 points per 100 possessions in his 96 minutes off the floor.
Embiid’s impact is obvious. On offense, he’s been drawing double-teams, setting impactful screens, and drawing loose-ball fouls on the glass.
“You can see it on pick-and-rolls,” Embiid said. “Marc is not helping off of me. They’re really stuck to me and every time I put it on on the floor or every time I have the ball, they just collapse.”
On defense, he has essentially scared the Raptors from scoring near the basket. With Embiid on the floor in the series, the Raptors have shot 59 percent in the restricted area, where they’ve taken 23 percent of their shots.
With Embiid off the floor, those numbers rise to 80 percent and 28 percent, respectively.
“You’re conscious of where he’s at on the floor,” Kyle Lowry said. “When he’s out there, he’s a big body. He’s a force on both ends.”
It’s the playoffs. If I got to play 45 minutes, that’s what I got to do. If that’s what it takes to win, I got to be there.
Still, the on-off swings in Game 6 were rather remarkable. There’s certainly some noise in that plus-40 mark. The Raptors’ bigs got some open looks from the outside on Thursday, but Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka combined to shoot 0-for-6 from beyond the arc.
If a couple of those go in, this story might be about Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons, who combined for 46 points, 14 assists and just two turnovers. Butler capped off a 19-point first half with two buckets and a strip of Leonard in the final 11 seconds. Simmons, meanwhile, registered nine buckets in the restricted area (one shy of his career high), thanks to a relentless attack and four offensive rebounds.
As they head back to Toronto for Game 7, the Sixers still have to figure out what to do when Embiid goes to the bench.
“Who is the eighth man?” Brown asked. “It’s not clear.”
It may be that there is no eighth man, that Brown just extends the minutes of his best players, and he tries to buy a few minutes with Scott at center. Brown certainly didn’t hesitate to bring Embiid back quicker than usual with the Sixers’ season on the line in Game 6, and Embiid says he’s ready for whatever’s needed on Sunday.
“It’s the playoffs,” Embiid said. “I got to play. If I got to play 45 minutes and push myself out there, that’s what I got to do. If that’s what it takes to win, if my presence on the court is needed, I got to be there. It doesn’t matter if it takes the whole game. I’m fine with it. I got to keep on pushing myself. In Game 7, we’re going to need it. I’m going to need to be on the court and I intend to be ready for everything if I have to play a whole game.”
We don’t know what’s coming in Sunday’s Game 7 (7 ET, TNT). But Embiid will be on the floor, and that may be the most important thing.
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