Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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It was a tough first-round series for Joel Embiid against the Brooklyn Nets. He was a gametime decision in all five contests, twice listed as doubtful in the injury report, and once ruled out altogether. In the games he did play, he was often hampered, with Brett Brown buying him extra minutes on the bench whenever possible. Particularly in the first two games, when he was out on the court, he didn’t look his usual explosive self -- sometimes getting beat on the boards by the likes of Jarrett Allen and Ed Davis for rebounds he’d normally grab with ease, because he couldn’t really get off the ground.
It was tough sledding for the big man throughout. And yet, even with all of this, Joel Embiid was easily the best player in the first round. Not just in the Sixers-Nets series. In the entire first round of the NBA playoffs. So much eventually went right for Philly after their Game One letdown against Brooklyn that I think we lost track somewhere along the line of just how much our franchise anchor put his size 27 footprint on this series.
But he was nothing less than dominant throughout. The per-game numbers are impressive enough: Embiid averaged 24.8 PPG, 13.5 RPG and 2.8 BPG on 51% shooting for the series, with nearly nine trips to the line a contest and more total assists (14) than turnovers (12) or fouls (11). Then you consider that he only played 24 minutes a game -- fifth most on the team in the series, and not even a full minute more on average than Mike Scott -- and those numbers become absolutely staggering. Embiid’s per 36 averages for the series? 36.7 points, 20.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 4.1 blocks, 4.5 turnovers, 13 FTAs. He scored 99 points in 97 minutes. He led the Sixers in total points, rebounds and blocks -- handily -- despite being just sixth on the team in total minutes. (The team’s second-leading scorer, Tobias Harris, scored 11 fewer points in 79 more minutes.)
Then you get to the advanced stats, and it becomes absolutely stupefying. JoJo posted a PER of 40.4 for the series, according to RealGM -- which is 8.6 points higher than the next-highest playoff performer, Bucks presumptive regular season MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, and double-digits higher than both Damian Lillard (averaging 33 a game) and Montrezl Harrell (shooting 75% from the field). He also posted an offensive rating (120.5) that was 26.8 points higher than his defensive rating (93.7). And his defensive impact was particularly needed for the 76ers: According to Basketball Reference, the Sixers had a defensive rating of 118.6 with Embiid off the court, and a near-impossible 89.9 with him on. Reduced to simple on/off plus-minus, Embiid was a +53 for the entire series.
And this stuff all checks out against the eye test and general impressions, too. In Game One, everyone but Jimmy Butler underperformed, and in Game Three, the team rallied without JoJo, but for the rest of the series, it was a matter of just playing even with Embiid on the bench and wiping the floor with Brooklyn when he was on the court. I’ve never seen a big man play better defense than Jo did in Games Four and Five in this series -- not just blocking and contesting shots but snuffing them out before they can even materialize; on one possession in the closeout game he shut down every angle of a Caris LeVert drive until he just hurled the ball into the backcourt. (And LeVert was the one dude on the Nets playing well!)
Now of course, there’s something to be said for Jo’s outsized performance coming not just despite his limited minutes, but because of them -- that the small sample size makes his numbers look better than they actually were, or than they would’ve been had Brett Brown not protected his PT to such an extent. Fair, though it’s also worth pointing out that in two of the four games he played, the biggest reason he didn’t get on the court more was because he played so well in the minutes he did get that there was no reason for him to play more. He played 20 and change in both Game Two and Game Five, put up a combined 46 and 23, and checked out in each with the game already out of reach. And when he played a series-high 31:30 in Game Four, the Sixers needed every one of those minutes, as Embiid powered the Sixers comeback down the stretch, closing with a 31-16-6-7 line and the game-winning assist to Mike Scott. The Nets were the only underdog team in the East to put up a real fight this first round, and Embiid is the primary reason we still got by them in five.
I say all this mostly to say: Yes, it’s true that the Sixers don’t match up particularly well with the Raptors. Their wings are big, strong and quick enough to contain our wings, Kawhi Leonard historically gives us (and Ben Simmons in particular) fits, their bench is wildy superior, and Marc Gasol has always played Embiid extremely tough.
So what’s our matchup advantage in this series? Well, I think it’s still Embiid: Even if Gasol has been one of the best in the NBA at containing him, it’s still goddamn Joel Embiid vs. fucking 34-year-old Marc Gasol. The latter has been playing well, and his advanced stats rank up there with Jo’s for the first round in a lot of key areas, but until we actually see him hold Embiid down for four to seven games straight, I’m claiming that matchup as Advantage: Sixers. Can’t you see us getting to Game Four of that series and going, “Wow, were we really ever worried that Marc Gasol was gonna shut Embiid down?”
And really, that’s still our best path to an upset in this series: Embiid simply being the best player on the court. It’ll be tougher to do against Gasol and Serge Ibaka than Jarrett Allen and Jared Dudley, for sure -- and particularly if he’s not playing at 100% -- but Embiid was so out of this world in the four games he played against Brooklyn, and got so much stronger as the series went on, that I don’t see how you can really have confidence in any opponent on the planet neutralizing him at this point. And if he’s nearly as good against Toronto, we’ve got a real chance in that series -- no matter what happens elsewhere on the court -- and in pretty much any playoff series to come. In The Process we trust.