Defending Joel Embiid “OK” is hardly a winning formula for the Celtics

The headlines coming out of the Celtics’ 108-103 loss at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers last night are bound to focus on Jaylen Brown’s “unwavering faith” in his team, despite its 15-16 record, and despite its penchant for late-game collapses. Brown noted that there is “no question” as to whether or not he’s confident that this group can turn things around at this stage of the season.

In full, Brown said:

“I think it’s an obvious answer for me. I know people are tired of hearing it and people probably have lost belief and faith but mine is unwavering. I still think we can be a good team. We showed it in spurts. I have been out for an extended [period] of time and I’m trying to get back. The question is, if you ask if I still believe? 100 percent, regardless of if anybody else does or not.”

I imagine most responses to those thoughts read/sound something like, “yeah, people are tired of hearing it,” or “spurts? How about a whole game?” Something like that, give or take a few expletives from the most entrenched of diehards.

But nevermind that. Comments like those are like catnip to aggregators, whereas the real headlines from last night should relate simply and solely to what happened on the floor, in the final period, after yet another otherwise wire-to-wire performance from the home team that ended in yet another loss. The fourth quarter saw a seven-point Boston lead disappear thanks to a 15-4 Philly run, led by — who else — Joel Embiid, whose 17 points led all scorers in the quarter (and made him the quarter’s lone double-figure scorer). In all periods combined, he dropped a game-high 41 on 52-percent shooting, and added 10 rebounds, five assists, and four blocks. What else is new for last year’s MVP runner-up.

“Embiid made some tough baskets on us,” Brown, who led the Celtics in scoring with 30 points, said after the game. “Some incredible shots, to be honest. And offensively we didn’t execute as well as we would have liked to down the stretch. We had a couple of turnovers. And yeah, that cost us the game. Turnovers.”

Brown isn’t wrong there; though the Sixers had 15 turnovers, the Celtics’ 18 did them a dirty number, especially late in the game. Eight of those 18 came in the final period, practically handing the Sixers and their star free scoring opportunities in a tight game. Head coach Ime Udoka didn’t “feel like scoring was the problem,” noting that Boston remained, for the most part, “in a decent flow there. I’d say we scored enough to win, even with the turnovers. I think the defense on Embiid was as poor as the offense there. But we did have some late turnovers.”

But… down the stretch, the Celtics were outscored 18-6, and could hardly match the prowess of their opponent, particularly its best player. 103 points may be “enough” to win, but when the defense comes up as short as it did, and when the ball is leaving the hands of a Celtic and landing in the hands of a Sixer as much as it did, that’s a problem.

A few things are becoming routine in Boston losses in general, with one in particular relating to losses at the hands of the Sixers. For one, they fail to execute down the stretch, growing sloppy with the ball and coming up short when offensive capitalization beckons. Exclusively against Philadelphia, however, the Celtics consistently fail to stop Embiid. Per StatMuse, in 16 career games against the Celtics, Embiid averages 26.6 points on 45-26-85 shooting splits, 12.3 rebounds, a shade under two blocks per game. In other words, he plays like a consistent, if-not somewhat elevated version of himself against the Celtics, maximizing on the things he does best.

In last night’s contest, especially in its fourth quarter and particularly on a three-possession stretch of buckets, Embiid looked to be a god amongst men. No, that doesn’t do it justice — a god looming over the world on which men exist and gods can freely command however and whenever they wish. He scored at will; late in the fourth, on that aforementioned three-basket run of his own, he looked like the king of the court calling for the ball in a pickup game that he had taken over long ago. That comparison, unfortunately for the Celtics, isn’t far off. Embiid regularly makes his opponents appear inferior, but last night, he made them look as though they were playing an entirely different sport. (It doesn’t help that Boston gifted Embiid and the Sixers as a whole with 40 minutes of work from Enes Freedom, who isn’t… ideal.)

He also draws quite a few fouls when facing Boston, attempting 11 free throws per game in those matchups; he only attempts more against the Clippers, Lakers, Pistons, and Timberwolves. Last night, he attempted a game-high 14 and made a game-high 12 (I’m writing the words “game-high” an awful lot here. I wonder if that’s a cause for concern).

Not according to Ime Udoka, depending on how you perceive his postgame comments. “We were, to some extent, defending him OK,” he said of Boston’s effort against Embiid. “He was taking some tough (2-point shots). We were kind of living with him taking those tough shots and keeping everybody else under control and he got going at the end there.”

Speaking generally, Brown echoed his coach’s sentiment. “We gave up some big baskets. And we’ve gotta do better at adjusting on the fly. We’ve gotta do better. It’s stuff that we normally do well at, but we didn’t do well enough tonight.”

Defending “OK” and not doing “well enough tonight” won’t cut it as the season continues for Boston. So, perhaps Brown’s comments about having faith in his team carry some merit, but at a certain point, they’re mere words. Brown went on to hit on a need for a sense of urgency from the team — better words, but nonetheless those that need to have results to match them in the end.

“We had so many excuses that we were making tonight: It was cold in the arena, the fire alarm kind of slowed everything down, we had guys out,” Brown said. “Like, who cares? We’ve just got to come out and find a way to bring energy, set the tone and have a sense of urgency about ourselves. We played a decent game, but the turnovers, the miscommunication kind of killed us in the end.”

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