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Joel Embiid Has Changed the Face of the Sixers-Heat Series

Philly’s masked avenger has upended the second-round playoff matchup, mostly with his mere presence on the court

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After Joel Embiid drew a foul and scored on Bam Adebayo with a fadeaway jumper, he was kind enough to show his opponent the way out. The third-quarter foul was Adebayo’s second in roughly a minute and his fourth in Game 4—enough for Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to pull him from the lineup. The Sixers’ home crowd howled with delight as the call was announced, and Embiid, ever helpful, pointed Adebayo to the Heat bench, where he would remain for the nearly eight and a half minutes remaining in the quarter.

Just days prior, Adebayo had been the most dominant player in a series Miami led 2-0. Embiid had yet to take the floor; an elbow to the face in the closing moments of the previous playoff round had knocked the MVP finalist out of action. So Adebayo went to work. He walked around the inert DeAndre Jordan and scored over the overmatched Paul Reed. He cleared paths to the rim with his screens and set up Miami’s shooters as they swirled through their routes. Embiid grew annoyed as he watched along back in Philadelphia.

“The big fella, Bam, he was dominating,” Embiid said after his first game back. “I was really pissed off watching that other big man go play well against my team.”

So he cleared concussion protocols, strapped on a mask that would shield the fracture in his face, and rejoined his team to put a stop to it. There is a stark before and after in Adebayo’s performance, split from the moment Embiid first took the floor. When given the chance to work against any other combination of Sixers, Adebayo has converted 70.4 percent of his shots in this series, according to NBA Advanced Stats, gorging himself on a buffet of layups and dunks. With the 7-foot Embiid in the mix, however, Adebayo is shooting just 46.7 percent from the field. Even more glaring are the moments he seems to clam up in the middle of the paint, convinced by Embiid’s shadow not to shoot at all.

“Bigger guy. Bigger body. Better presence,” said Sixers coach Doc Rivers.

If these problems were unique to Bam, the Heat could probably make do. Yet Embiid isn’t a run-of-the-mill matchup problem; he’s an existential threat to anything an opponent hopes to accomplish. “A lot of that,” Jimmy Butler said, “is because he takes away the rim.” In games 3 and 4, Butler was the only Miami player who seemed at all willing to drive toward Embiid—or, more accurately, to step, pivot, fake, and somehow finish around him. Too many other Heat possessions evaporated the moment a guard cleared a ball screen, turned the corner, and found Embiid waiting for any layup or runner they might try.

“When you drive, you see Joel Embiid,” Rivers said. “That’s a force.”

The Heat don’t have a single player Embiid’s size, so they’ve resorted to fronting him in the post in a way that is both labor-intensive and foul-intensive. “That’s always going to be a reality against this team,” Spoelstra said. The burden is not merely fronting, either—it’s dealing with Embiid as he faces up, James Harden as he baits contact, or Tyrese Maxey as he streaks past his defenders. Miami’s best chance to bother Embiid is to be as disruptive as possible, to introduce chaos by putting defenders between Embiid and the ball. Yet after Adebayo racked up fouls trying to fight for position, P.J. Tucker—who is 7 inches shorter than Embiid and almost a decade older—had to take on that responsibility, leading to even more foul trouble. Tucker played a series-low 25 minutes in Game 4 as a result, and barely appeared in the fourth quarter at all.

If that doesn’t seem like a big deal, look closer. One of the main reasons the Heat can get away with switching on defense in this series is because the uncommonly sturdy Tucker can begin a possession on Harden and flow seamlessly into a wrestling match with Embiid. Trying the same strategy with Victor Oladipo (who has otherwise defended Harden) invites disaster. The Heat need other defenders to loom in the background in those situations, ready to spring into a double-team—at least until the Sixers clock it, cut backdoor, and ice a critical possession with a gut-punch alley-oop:

“We can’t switch 1 through 5 like we used to,” Adebayo conceded. “Now, we’ve gotta be more strategic with our switches.”

There’s a similar chain reaction happening in almost every aspect of Philadelphia’s play. “The stuff we can run, even though it’s not for Joel, but he’s involved—just his presence allows us to run a lot of other things that we couldn’t run without him,” Rivers said. Embiid is exhausted, constantly fidgeting with his mask, and playing through a torn ligament in his right thumb. He has been upfront about the fact that he intends to work as a decoy to distract the Heat defense, but when Embiid is still this overwhelming, what’s the difference? Miami has no choice but to take him seriously.

When even your best-suited defenders are living with a constant disadvantage, overhelping might be the only reasonable course of action. Which means that most pick-and-rolls that Harden runs with Embiid will draw the defense toward the NBA’s leading scorer this season and away from one of the most dangerous scorers the NBA has ever seen. It means every time Danny Green springs open, he’ll be unattended for a half-beat longer. It means the Heat can never really know which play designs are actually intended to get Embiid the ball, and which could simply end up that way.

“You add Jo to any team, home or away, and the game, the scouting report—it changes drastically,” Butler said. There’s not really a way to reckon with Embiid as a player without making him top of mind. To even consider how you might approach guarding him or hypothetically bothering him, you have to take into account the full range of what he can do. And that’s how a player like Harden, who not long ago would have been a defense’s first and last concern, winds up looking more like himself when he plays with Embiid than without him. Harden can do amazing things when he’s surrounded by players who are active threats—in lineups where, to borrow from Spoelstra, “everybody is a live option.”

It would be enough for Embiid to simply not be DeAndre Jordan. To do enough not to be ignored. That he’s clearly so much more is what now puts all the tactical pressure in this series on the Heat. Forget the production (21 points and 11 rebounds per game), though it’s been more than respectable; you can see Embiid’s impact by the way he ties an opponent in knots. Miami’s shots at the rim are vanishing. The points they stole on the offensive glass have dried up. So much depends now on Butler’s continued excellence, and on the Heat’s shooters converting the exact kinds of looks that got away from them in games 3 and 4—the looks that had the leaders of the team staring at the cold truths of the box score in disbelief.

This is the power of Embiid. Even a talented, flexible team with moves to make can feel—in the moment—like they’re up against it. An entire series can be framed, if not decided, by everything he takes away.