Jimmy Butler laid out the blueprint for Joel Embiid after the 76ers season-saving Game 6 win Thursday.
“We let our defense start us out and dictate our offense, which is what I always say,” Butler told reporters after dropping a team-high 25 in the 112-101 contest. “Whenever we play like that, we’re hard to beat.”
The playoffs have not been the kindest place to Embiid.
He took over in Game 4 in Brooklyn last series and Game 3 against the Raptors, but for much of the Toronto series, the big man has struggled on offense.
Game 6 was the fourth game this series Embiid shot below 40%, but it was also one of his best games of his young playoff career. Plus-minus can sometimes be a deceptive stat, but Embiid’s plus-40 Thursday was an indicator of what a defensive presence he is.
Throughout the postseason Embiid has had one of the best defensive ratings among players. Currently sitting at 91.2, only the eliminated Terry Rozier (91.1) had a better rating among rotational players than Embiid. His quest to prove he is an unstoppable offensive force has not gone quite as well.
Embiid is still sometimes too slow with his moves and isn’t always prepared to pass out of a double team. It’s why he has 24 turnovers over the last five games.
And similar to what happened last year with the Celtics led by Al Horford, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka have been able to keep Embiid off the block for the most part and prevent him from muscling his way to the rim when he is down there.
In Game 2, one of Embiid’s biggest plays was finding Butler for a three late. In the narrow Game 4 loss, he posted seven assists as he took only seven shots (and 10 free throws), with only two of those field goal attempts coming in the decisive fourth quarter.
It’s a part of his game he’s shown improvement with all season, and in Game 7, he’ll need to find teammates more consistently and limit the turnovers assuming he doesn’t have another 33-point outing in him.
However, even in his Game 3 offensive masterpiece, it was his defense that paved the way just like Thursday.
Philadelphia’s last two wins against the Raptors have been on nights where Embiid showed why he’s in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. He had five big blocks that set the tone in Game 3, and he had a pair of stuffs against Kawhi Leonard that provided a big emotional boost in Game 6.
But while his blocks bring energy to the crowd and bench, similar to his windmill dunk late in Game 3, Embiid’s rebounding is also a key in seeing what he’s providing on the defensive end. Games 3 and 6 are his only ones this series with at least 10 boards, which seems downright outrageous considering he was second in the league this season with 13.6 rebounds a night.
When Embiid is cleaning the glass the best he can, it shapes the way the whole night goes. The more comfortable he is in the paint on a given night means more one-shot possessions for the opposition and more extended possessions for Philadelphia. Embiid using his big body to just move people around doesn’t help as much when he has the ball in his hands in the playoffs, but it still pays off when he’s fighting for a ball of the rim. Even if he doesn’t bring down the rock, he’s liable to force a foul when he’s at his best.
And for a player who benefits so much from the free-throw line, finding as many ways to get the opposing bigs in foul trouble should always be a priority. Embiid was the best in the league in the regular season at getting fouls drawn, but that’s when referees gave him more love on the offensive end. Loose ball fouls can still send you to the line though. And having great position on the offensive glass should lead to easy buckets or the Raptors taking fouls they didn’t want to use to make an 80% foul shot shooter earn his points instead of dunking it down their throats.
But that starts with Embiid dominating on defense, and then bringing that aggression to the other side of the floor, at the right times.
Game 7 will be a new beast for Embiid. For a player whose two career postseasons were plagued by the fact he came into April injured two years in a row, it’s an opportunity to shift the entire narrative around his playoff performances.
The 76ers went out and got Butler early this season for these moments. So they would have another offensive option to trust late, and another veteran leader to help guide Embiid and Ben Simmons into the future.
Now it’s time for Embiid to listen to him and put his faith in his defense once more, and let the rest get dictated from there.