Joel Embiid might not win MVP this season, but he just proved why he could be the most important player in the postseason. The Philadelphia 76ers big man put on an absolute clinic in a 132-103 Game 3 throttling of the Washington Wizards on Saturday, scoring a playoff career-high 36 points on blistering 14-for-18 shooting (3-of-4 from 3-point range) in just 28 minutes.
At times, Embiid looked like an 11th grader playing against the 7th grade B team, destroying Wizards defenders in every possible manner. Scott Brooks made the
questionable awful stupid bold decision not to double Embiid for most of the game, and the 7-footer roasted any defender that came his way, from Alex Len to Daniel Gafford to Rui Hachimura.
ESPN commentator Vince Carter made a great point after Embiid torched Len in single-coverage for his first basket of the game.
Even if you want to mix in some single-coverage against Embiid, Carter postulated, you shouldn't do it right from the opening tip. Embiid clearly got in a rhythm early, and there was no looking back. Getting easy buckets and free throw attempts allowed Embiid to find a groove with his jump shot, at which point he simply becomes unguardable. Watch here as he toys with the smaller Hachimura, facing absolutely no resistance.
So, if Len is too slow and Hachimura is too small, how about Gafford? He's tall, quick and athletic! Surely that will work! Nope.
And when the Wizards did finally send a second man to Embiid, it was far too late and far too slow.
As crazy as it seems to show Embiid single coverage pretty much all game, you can understand where Brooks was coming from. His team had consistently double-teamed Embiid in the first two games of the series, and the results weren't pretty. The Wizards were coming off a 25-point loss with that strategy, it's not like they were limiting Embiid's scoring in the process (pun intended) -- he averaged 26 points in 28 minutes in Games 1 and 2.
The 76ers came into Game 3 averaging 1.3 points per possession in the first-round series when Embiid faced a hard double-team, according to Synergy Sports Technology. Just two years ago during the 2018-19 playoffs, Philadelphia averaged 0.824 points per possession in the same situations. The numbers help illustrate Embiid's evolution with his patience and passing when a second man blitzes him.
Assuming the Sixers put away the Wizards in a relatively quick fashion, their subsequent opponents on the path to the NBA Finals will probably be much better defensively. But whether it's the Knicks or Hawks, then later the Bucks, Nets or Celtics, each team will face a similar conundrum of how, and when, to double-team Embiid.
He certainly proved with Saturday's masterpiece that consistent single-coverage is simply not an option.