NBA Film Study: Nets’ Bold Plans To Contain Joel Embiid, Sixers

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers, NBA News
NBA Analysis Network

The Philadelphia 76ers had a hot shooting performance in their 121-101 victory over the Brooklyn Nets in Game 1 of their first-round NBA playoff series. The Sixers shot 21-43 (48.8 percent) from beyond the arc, countering the undersized Nets’ frequent attempt to send double teams at Joel Embiid. The Nets aren’t discouraged by giving up those shots after reviewing the game film on Sunday.

“That’s the great thing about the film. It tells the truth,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said. “So half of those threes weren’t from double-teams so you have to take a look at that. Whether it’s an offensive rebound that we didn’t get and [Georges] Niang gets an open three. Whether it’s a we turned the basketball over and [Tyrese] Maxey gets an open three at the other end.

“So being able to diagnose that and hone in on what were the threes we gave up from scrambling, that’s where the guys need to see it.”

The Nets view some of their shortcomings in other key areas as being more in need of change than being deterred from double-teaming Embiid. Given how Brooklyn was outscored by an 18-point margin in second-chance points and the team gave up 31 points off 20 turnovers, there was a significant amount of errors that must be corrected.

NBA NEWS & PLAYOFFS COVERAGE: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers & Brooklyn Nets Updates

“You really gotta look at all the possessions and I gotta convince this group to look at all the possessions, which we will,” Vaughn said, “and see which ones came from scrambling and which ones came from just normal basketball plays.”

Embiid finished Game 1 with 26 points while shooting 7-15 from the floor and 1-4 from 3-point range while converting on all 11 free throw attempts. He still managed to make a strong impact despite the apparent emphasis from the Nets to get the ball out of his hands. The Sixers see room for improvement in how they handled attacking those doubles.

“But, I think we can handle them better,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said of the double-teams. “I do. We made threes. But we showed [the players] about six times where our spacing was off, was late. And we have to get better on that.”

NBA NEWS & PLAYOFFS COVERAGE: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers & Brooklyn Nets Updates

The simplest form of countering the Nets’ double teams for Embiid is to just wait to draw both defenders, then pass out of the post to play “advantage basketball” against a defense that’s out of rotation. The weak-side will often get a clean look in the corner.

While the Sixers’ shooters simply missing a clean look would be one outcome the Nets will hope for, the greater way to take control of that reality would be to disrupt the actual initial pass-out. It doesn’t have to result in a steal directly. If the pass can be tipped, the final recovery to the weak-side corner can result in a contested shot due to the disruption in timing.

In others situations when the Nets win possessions by doubling Embiid occur when he’s settling for tough shots despite reading that a double team is coming or simply is late to get the ball out of his hands before turning it over. Not all shots with a second defender rotating over should be considered bad, but unselfish and decisive decisions are needed.

Given that Embiid has shooting touch, he still can be aggressive against a late double, as long as he has a situation where rhythm is still possible. If he can get into his move to clear space or to create the initial advantage without getting stuck, by all means, that’s a good shot for a superstar with a size advantage to still get up within the flow of the game. He did so a few times in Game 1.

The Sixers successfully utilized Embiid as an off-ball screener in the second half as they ran more through Harden and Tyrese Maxey. The main question becomes how unselfish Embiid can be with his mentality when doing the little things to create scoring chances, or at least embracing being a decoy for stretches, most important. Can the Nets test his patience in that regard?

There are still solutions for Embiid to remain engaged as a scorer despite being doubled. Giving the ball up after drawing two defenders and then flashing toward the ball or simply getting it back can create quick windows for him to be aggressive. This can be achieved out of a “Horns” set with a high-low sequence or simply out of the progress in read-and-react basketball out after an initial dribble handoff (DHO) or high ball screen.

The Sixers did attack closeouts often to re-drive plays. Still, they often took a two-point attempt instead of sticking with the ideal shot profile that analytic departments tend to appreciate — consisting of deep drive finishes and 3-pointers. Philadelphia will look to further keep the defense in the “blender” as opposed to settling for pull-up jumpers on drives, floaters, and tough finishes.

NBA NEWS & PLAYOFFS COVERAGE: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers & Brooklyn Nets Updates

“I just thought a lot of our twos should have probably been more ball movement than shots now quite honestly,” Rivers said. “So I think we’ll be better at that.”

It remains to be seen how effective the Nets’ strategy will be in staying focused on doubling Embiid over the course of a full series. Throughout his NBA career, he has gotten frustrated by that philosophy being adopted by the opposition, and Brooklyn isn’t equipped to handle single coverage with Nic Claxton being a much thinner-framed center. It’s the best option for the Nets, but will it be enough?

Perhaps the greatest X-factor involved in this situation will be P.J. Tucker’s ability to make plays as a relief option out of the double. He’s an inconsistent 3-point shooter that has an entirely one-dimensional offensive skill-set. If he’s crowding the dunker’s spot, can they keep overpowering the Nets? If he’s spacing from the corner, will he be able to knock down the open look?

James Harden, who finished with 23 points with seven made 3-pointers, will be relied on for his aggressive scoring, especially if the Nets succeed with their double-teaming against Embiid. When supporting cast players’ shots aren’t dropping, and things get stagnant, Harden is the ideal bailout option to turn to for instant impact.

The Sixers have the benefit of already seeing the Nets’ only help as far as defensive game-planning is concerned. Now they will have a firmer idea of where and when those doubles will come against Embiid, which should offer the ability to identify effective counters and iron out timing for reads. Surviving the natural progression of a seven-game series with a natural disadvantage in personnel and coming out of the gate with aggressive double-teaming is a tough reality to live in.

NBA NEWS & PLAYOFFS COVERAGE: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers & Brooklyn Nets Updates

As the series progresses, Rivers’ ability to get Embiid to buy into playing more within the flow instead of relying on his usual heavy dose of early clock touches will be important, as will be Philadelphia’s ability to continue to knock down 3-pointers at a high clip.

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About Grant Afseth 1199 Articles
Grant Afseth is an NBA reporter for NBA Analysis Network and Dallas Mavericks reporter for He previously covered the Indiana Pacers and NBA for CNHI's Kokomo Tribune and various NBA teams for USA TODAY Sports Media Group. Follow him on Twitter (@grantafseth), Facebook (@grantgafseth), and YouTube (@grantafseth).