It would be easy to look at the box scores from the first two games and think that defense was optional in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Philadelphia 76ers are averaging 121 points per game, while the Atlanta Hawks are at 115. Look deeper. Look inside the paint.
All-Star center Joel Embiid has been causing Clint Capela and Danilo Gallinari fits on a nightly basis. The Sixers big man has even started trash-talking one of them in French. Embiid has also been instrumental in stopping Trae Young with what he called a “cat and mouse” game. The 7-footer will fake like he’s coming up to the perimeter, then stay back to protect against the lob pass. He also has to keep his eyes on Young to make sure he doesn’t sneak a floater in. Or find an open teammate on the wing.
“Faking and going back,” Embiid said. “Just trying to keep them guessing.”
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers marvels at the way Embiid defends the pick-and-roll. He thinks what the runner-up for MVP brings on that end is “pretty rare” and put in the same conversation with Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon, in terms of how he uses his quick feet and lengthy frame.
“He’s the anchor point on defense because he has the ability to protect the rim,” Rivers said. “He’s so versatile, it’s rare with a guy his size, that you can bring him up in pick-and-rolls, that you can actually switch on a couple occasions and you can trap and you can be in the drop [coverage]. Joel can do all those things and he does them well. He has great feet, he really does — and that makes us pretty good defensively.”
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Rivers Calls Nikola Jokic ‘Worthy Winner’
It was surely disappointing to see Embiid miss out on NBA MVP honors the other day. Then again, it was a foregone conclusion that Nikola Jokic was going to win it. You can’t miss 21 games — nearly a quarter of the season — and take home the league’s top hardware. Rivers added his two cents to the MVP debate after Thursday’s shootaround.
“I was disappointed that Joel didn’t win MVP, but I thought when you think of Joker and what he’s done all year, he’s played in the amount of games that he played in, he was a worthy winner,” Rivers said. “A lot of times you have to have an MVP season the year before you become the MVP and the same thing with any of those awards.”
Rudy Gobert Throws Major Shade at Embiid
Meanwhile, Ben Simmons lost the Defensive Player of the Year award to Rudy Gobert in another controversial end-of-year vote. The Sixers point guard finished second to the Utah Jazz big man. Those two men already had a rivalry brewing, then Gobert took it to a new level when he mimicked Embiid’s “Thrust the Process” move in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals. No doubt both Simmons and Embiid were watching at home while laughing and plotting revenge.
Embiid explained the inspiration behind the “crotch chop” after a first-round playoff game. He credited his two favorite professional wrestlers and the Sixers actually invited one of them out to ceremonially “ring the bell” before Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“I mean it’s fun, I missed the crowd,” Embiid told reporters. “I mentioned that in the past, D-X [Generation], with Triple H and Shawn Michaels, they are my favorite wrestlers and they were a group and that’s what they used to do. And also with the and-one, it just made sense to come down.”
Yes, the move is important to Embiid. This is a budding storyline should the Jazz and Sixers meet in the NBA Finals.