Embiid
USATSI

About seven minutes into the Philadelphia 76ers' first game of the playoffs, Joel Embiid had scored 11 points on 5 for 5 shooting. He caught the ball on the left block and hit a running hook over Boston Celtics big man Daniel Theis on the opening possession. He backed down Jaylen Brown on a switch, making the 6-foot-6 wing look like a little kid. He even bailed the Sixers out when Josh Richardson threw him a grenade, cashing a contested stepback 3 as the shot clock expired. 

It seemed like Embiid might go for 50. This did not happen. He finished with 26 points on 8 for 15 shooting on Monday, with one assist, five turnovers and five fouls in 37 minutes, which is how coach Brett Brown found himself fielding questions about the volume of Embiid's post touches and how the rest of the Sixers are positioned when he's posting up.

There is no mystery as to why Embiid was the center of attention after the 109-101 loss. Long before his co-star Ben Simmons left the NBA bubble to have season-ending knee surgery, before Embiid dropped 38 points in a December victory at TD Garden, even before the Sixers beat the Celtics by double digits on opening night 10 months ago, this matchup had his name written all over it. Philadelphia never consistently clicked in the regular season, but it went 3-1 against Boston, a team that starts a relatively anonymous 6-foot-8 role player, Daniel Theis, in the middle.

Down the stretch, anyone could see that Embiid was frustrated about the ball not finding him more often and that the Sixers were discombobulated in the halfcourt. But sometimes what you don't see is just as important. Isn't that right, Russ?

In Game 1, you didn't see anything like this (from Philly's games against the San Antonio Spurs and Washington Wizards two weeks ago): 

And you didn't see anything like this (from the aforementioned season opener in October):

Unless the Celtics were the ones running, that is:

This season, Simmons' presence on the court increased the amount of time his team spent in transition more than any player in the league not named Giannis Antetokounmpo, according to Cleaning The Glass. He finished second among players who logged at least 1,000 minutes last year, too, behind only Russell Westbrook. He forces turnovers like Tony Allen, throws hit-ahead passes like LeBron and accelerates like a rocket.

No one in their right mind expects Philadelphia to be able to conjure transition opportunities out of thin air without Simmons. Their almost total absence on Monday, however, was extreme -- and consequential. In a game in which the Sixers were within one possession with a minute to play, they spent a minuscule 7.8 percent of their possessions in transition, were outscored 21-7 in points off turnovers and were outscored 18-8 in fast break points. 

And these numbers might even undersell it, as there's a convincing case to be made that Marcus Smart should've gotten a charging call here:

In four regular-season meetings, the 76ers' 21-point loss in February was the only time Boston had more fast break points and the only time it spent more time in transition than they did.

The playoffs might have been a different story with or without Simmons. Two years ago, albeit with a different roster, the Celtics eliminated Philadelphia in five games largely because they almost completely ignored the offensive glass to race back and wall off the paint. The Sixers went from a push-the-pace team to one that barely ran and wasn't particularly effective when they did. This season Boston ranked fifth in limiting opponents' transition opportunities, and no team had more success limiting transition points, per CTG.

Transition play, however, was always baked into Philadelphia's formula. Since the day the Sixers essentially replaced Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick with Richardson and Al Horford, they've been talking about defense and bully ball. They knew they wouldn't be the most beautiful, free-flowing team in the halfcourt, but hoped that they could make up for that by hunting mismatches, getting stops and running. Now shorthanded and facing a more talented team, there is little margin for error. 

Even when Embiid was dominating in the first quarter, even when Philadelphia went on a run in the third, just about everything it was doing on offense looked difficult. The Sixers aren't set up to flow the way Boston does, and Brown has little choice but to use an Embiid-centric attack. It would be nice if he were to drop 50 on Wednesday, and it would help if his teammates could feed him a bit more without an immediate turnover, but in the NBA in 2020, post-ups are inherently dangerous.

If Philadelphia is going to have a chance of upsetting the Celtics, it at least needs to try to cause more turnovers -- I'm looking at you, Matisse Thybulle -- and be more opportunistic about getting out in transition -- I'm looking at everyone, Embiid included. The Sixers can't afford to do it all the hard way.


Previously on That's Pretty Interesting: T.J. Warren is on another planet, so where do the Pacers go from here?