TORONTO – The NBA is seeing Joel Embiid at his best this season. It’s probably going to end up with the big Philadelphia 76ers centre winning his first MVP award, although the race is shaping up to be the closest in league history.
But if Embiid makes it happen, there’s a good argument that it will be at least in part because the Toronto Raptors have historically made Embiid struggle.
No team has seen Embiid at his worst more than the Raptors. Ideally, they’ll be able to coax one more crummy performance from the Sixers star when Toronto travels to Philadelphia Friday to open a crucial five-game road trip that will determine where Toronto lands in the play-in tournament.
The Sixers have no worries in that regard. They are almost certainly locked into the three-place in the East, and Embiid’s brilliance is why. He leads the NBA in scoring, with 33.2 points a game, and averages 10.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.7 blocked shots, all while recording a career-high 65.2 per cent True Shooting percentage. No player in the league averaging 25 points a game or more – and with enough games played to qualify for the scoring lead – has been as efficient as Embiid this season.
The combination of his scoring volume, overall efficiency and defensive presence are the main reason I’m leaning toward ranking him first on my end-of-season NBA awards ballot.
“It’s really impressive,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet. “I’m really a fan of consistency and continuing to grow. He gets better every single year, he’s shooting the ball better, he’s getting to the line a tonne, it’s amazing, it’s been amazing to watch. He’s had an incredible year and I think Philly’s lucky to have him. We’ve got our work cut out and we gotta go try to beat him, so I’m not trying to just describe all the good qualities, I gotta try to see how we can come up with something to do tomorrow, so that’s my focus right now.”
How good is Embiid? Sometimes the best play to make on him is to simply give up. He’s so big, strong and expert at drawing contact, he required defenders to calculate whether to fight the battle at risk of losing the war.
“I mean, there’s all kinds of different things (needed to defend him),” said Raptors centre Jakob Poeltl, who will start Friday on Embiid and hope for the best. “You got to show your hands, you got to know when to step up. You got to be the second jumper. You got to still be close up to him, so that they’re not just rhythm shots for him.
“(But) you got to know when to just, I guess, give up on a play,” added Poeltl. “Like when he has to step on you like it’s just two points. Sometimes, it’s not worth trying to make that extra play if it’s going to cost you a bunch of minutes on the court (in foul trouble).”
Yet Raptors fans have seen Embiid struggle miserably as well – just not recently.
The low moments? Take your pick.
Was it when the Raptors used the beefy body of Marc Gasol and a fleet of help defenders to limit Embiid to just 17.8 points a game and 37 per cent shooting during their epic seven-game, second-round series in 2018-19 that saw Embiid leave the floor in tears?
Or was it the first meeting between the two teams in the opening weeks of the 2019-20 season, when Embiid was 0-of-11 from the floor and 0-of-3 from the free-throw line to finish with no points, four turnovers and five fouls in the worst single game of his career?
Or was it when he made twice as many turnovers (seven) than field goals (three) in the next meeting between the two teams, that same season?
Embiid is heading to the Hall of Fame, health permitting, but Toronto has traditionally been his kryptonite. His 22.2 points per game career average against the Raptors is the lowest among all Eastern Conference opponents and second lowest in the league overall, same for his 43.6 per cent field-goal percentage against the Raptors. He’s turned the ball over against Toronto more than against any team in the NBA.
Even this season – arguably Embiid’s best – the Raptors were a tough out as the Sixers star shot 6-of-16 against Toronto (although offset that by going 2-of-3 from the three-point line and making 14-of-15 free throws).
The Sixers ultimately won the two team’s last meeting, 104-101 on Dec. 21, but Embiid was frustrated by Toronto’s determination to swarm and harass and annoy, led that night by O.G. Anunoby, the powerful Raptors wing who is strong enough to hold his own against the skillful 300-pounder in the paint, and quick enough to make life difficult when Embiid faces the basket on the perimeter. He’ll likely be available as help defender Friday night.
“It seems like, most of the time, they don’t care about winning,” Embiid said of the Raptors’ approach in December. “They just want to shut down the other star players.”
But as it relates to Embiid, it’s getting harder and harder to do. Even in December, Embiid finished with 28 points. Over his last five starts against the Raptors, he’s averaging 29.2 points a game on 50 per cent shooting with just 2.6 turnovers.
Embiid is getting better. Last season – in his second playoff series against Toronto – Embiid averaged 26.2 points a game on 52 per cent shooting. He made just 20 turnovers in the Sixers’ 4-2 series win, compared with the 28 he made in 2019.
“We’ve thrown a lot of different things at him and they’ve had a chance to look at them and adjust to ‘em,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, whose aggressive schemes have so often given Embiid fits. “So, obviously that makes it harder, (the) familiarity, right?”
But it’s also Embiid’s ability to adapt – not to mention that the Raptors are no longer able to roll out Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka to make his life difficult.
This season, Embiid is in the midst of the best shooting season of his career, connecting on a career-high 58 per cent of his two-point attempts. Yes, he’s shooting an absurd 80.6 per cent at the rim, but he’s also making 49.5 per cent of his shots from 10-16 feet and 49.1 per cent from 16 feet to the three-point line. For comparison: Former Raptor DeMar DeRozan, recognized as perhaps the best mid-range shooting in the game, is at 50.9 per cent from 10-16 feet and 46.2 per cent on his long twos.
Put simply, he’s a nightmare.
“It’s just the duality between him being very physical and athletic, and, at the same time, having really good touch and being a very skillful player,” said Poeltl, who wasn’t with the Raptors Toronto’s two previous starts against Embiid. “So, you’ve got to figure out a way to guard both and it’s going to take a team effort, but I think we’re prepared for it.”
The Raptors have some history there: they exposed some of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s shortcomings in the 2019 conference finals. Two years later, Antetokounmpo led the Bucks to the NBA title and had a Finals MVP on his resume. The Raptors gave Jayson Tatum problems in the conference semi-finals in 2020 and he’s firmly in the MVP conversation this season, and the Boston Celtics are on the shortlist of championship favourites.
It’s not like the Raptors are some kind of NBA finishing school, but they’ve shown they can test the best and force them to adapt in order to thrive. Embiid is their greatest success, but they may not hold a spell over him anymore.
Embiid is too good.
“I think the struggles make you greater and he’s been a part of some great player struggles the last couple years,” said VanVleet. “Those guys are special players, and they go back and look at the tape, and they got a whole summer to try and eliminate weaknesses and it’s our job to try to exploit those weaknesses. (Embiid) has shrunk that list a lot the last couple years, so he doesn’t have much weakness in his game.”
The Raptors will keep looking and hope they can find some on Friday night. But with the way Embiid’s game has developed, there are safer bets.