After the second-seeded Toronto Raptors defeated the Orlando Magic in a 4-1 series in the first round, it was set that they would be facing the Philadelphia 76ers who are fresh off a 4-1 series against the Brooklyn Nets. In that series, we saw the creation of a new rivalry between those two teams. It was a very chippy and vocal series (especially on the Philadelphia end of things).
Aside from that, we saw Joel Embiid consistently abuse the Nets lackluster defense against the Cameroonian giant. Their best option was Jarrett Allen, and despite his ability to protect the rim, Embiid’s weight advantage and general strength were too much for him. Ultimately, this was enough to propel Philadelphia to the first round victory. With all that being said, I’m aware of how dominant Embiid truly could be and typically I would be terrified of him going into a series.
However, that is not the case here. With the arrival of 2013 defensive player of the year, Marc Gasol, I am extremely confident about our chances against the Sixers, and he has played a huge role in it. Now, you may be thinking, “Kempton. Embiid averaged 26/12/3 on us across 3 games. He did this on 60% true shooting and even managed to go 6/15 (40%) from three. This doesn’t seem too encouraging now, does it?” Looking at those numbers, no, no it doesn’t.
Nonetheless, Gasol wasn’t a Raptor in any of those games, but fan-favourite Jonas Valanciunas was. And although Valanciunas did a great job scoring on the defensive monster that Joel is, both Serge Ibaka and Greg Monroe had spent more time guarding the Process.
Across a grand total of 78 possessions, the Kansas product was able to score 32 points on 56.3% on Monroe, someone who was merely “in the way” for him. Now, while Ibaka gave him more of a fight holding him to 42.4% from the field, and despite Joel going 4/8 from deep and scoring 44 in 107 possessions, this is rather effective defense.
Now, more on Ibaka later, as I want to start directing more focus onto Gasol. Across 5 career games playing Marc, Joel has averaged 14 points on an average if .352 shooting on 12.2 attempts.
Simply put, this is phenomenal defense, especially when you consider that 4 of these games came in 2018 (2 for this season and 2 for last) and only one taking place in his rookie campaign. And, to be more specific, if you were to calculate the numbers for possessions Gasol was directly on Embiid over the latter four games, this is what you would get:
10/29 shooting (34.5%)
0/9 three-shooting (0%)
10 free throws made
To say the least, these are phenomenal numbers that indicate a player has a humongous defensive impact on Embiid. For reference, this season alone he had 30 games where he scored 29+ points and only 3 of those games he shot under 40%. On the other hand, he only had 10 games where he scored under 20 points. 2 were against Memphis when they had Gasol, one was against Toronto (note, without Gasol and Valanciunas).
This is a very promising sign for the team going forth. With that being said, many consider regular season results to be something that doesn’t necessarily mean postseason success, which is a fair statement considering how schemes, rotations, and strategies all change.
With all that being said, from what I’ve seen, this seems to be something that some analysts and many people associated with the Raptors fanbase have noticed. I have seen countless tweets about what Embiid averages in games against the Gasol Grizzlies, and some giving credit to Serge Ibaka and his efforts this season.
However, what I haven’t seen is people discussing exactly why it is these players have success on Embiid compared to others. To find out, I gathered some footage from Embiid’s efforts against the Nets last round, and against the Celtics from the previous playoffs and regular season leading up to this moment.
In the GIF above, we can see Embiid dribbling towards the basket in an effort to not only get closer for a superior position to score but also knowing that Jarrett Allen is someone that will more or less be like an oversized Bobo doll in his way, he could easily use his strength and size to rack up two points. And, well, that’s exactly what he had ended up doing. This right here embodies a good part of what typically makes Embiid successful, and what made the Nets series so easy for him.
-His defender is too light/weak
-His defender can’t stay in front of him
-His defender isn’t being too “strategical/intelligent”
-His defender seems to panic and fall for what Embiid wants
It is admirable of Joel that he is able to make so many players fall for all of this, but luckily for Toronto, none of those should serve as glaring issues in this upcoming second-round series. Despite a lack of footage to support the fact that Gasol and Ibaka should be effective doing this, the aforementioned clips I discovered of the Boston Celtics (specifically Al Horford and Aron Baynes) troubling him.
In this GIF Embiid does the same thing, trying to post up on his man, get close to the basket for better scoring position. However, unlike Jarrett Allen, Horford isn’t allowing himself to be pushed around at all. He is effectively keeping himself in front of Embiid, not letting him get past or create space. He is using his strength to keep him from backing up even more. This clearly bothers him as he not only loses his handle but (in a hectic manner) throws up a shot that eventually gets blocked.
Or Aron Baynes here. Joel is driving from the perimeter, attempting to use his speed to get to the rim with ease, but Baynes uses his side to stay relatively in front of him causing Embiid to turn around to the mid-range to rethink his plan. He tries to post up Baynes, but the Celtics big uses his strength and frame like a wall, not letting Embiid getting anywhere. This results in the Philly star settling for a fadeaway jumper that Baynes uses his size to contest, and ultimately, it misses.
These players are able to use their strength, size, footwork, positioning, and IQ to create constant problems for Embiid.
All of those traits can be used to define Marc Gasol and his amazing defense. Weighing 5 pounds more than Embiid and measuring in like 1 inch taller, Gasol 100% holds a slight size advantage here. This right here is what will make it hard for Joel to treat the former defensive player of the year like the ragdoll he made Jarrett Allen look like. As for Ibaka, well, he is 1 inch shorter and 15 pounds lighter than Embiid. However, he is known to be one of the stronger players in the NBA and has proven that believe to be true time and time again.
On top of size/strength, the footwork and positioning Gasol excels at as well as the speed and persistence displayed by Serge will both come in handy. They will surely be able to keep their strong bodies in front of Embiid which will lead to far less comfort and confidence in his shot. Typically, this will resort to him “panicking” and then messing up. Simply put, Toronto having one of Ibaka or Gasol available all-game long to guard him is a blessing, but that’s just defense.
On offense, the tables get turned to say the least. Well, to an extent.
13/35 shooting (37.1%)
9/16 deep shooting
3 free throws made
These are Marc Gasol’s offensive numbers when guarded by Embiid in those same four games. What I personally take away from this is that Gasol stands no chance against Embiid in the post, which is something that doesn’t surprise me. Scoring has never been the strong suit of his game, or even of his offense, and with an elite defender such as Embiid guarding Marc, there are sure to be some struggles. However, on the outside and passing game, there is some real promise.
In Toronto, Gasol has really taken on less of a scoring role thanks to players from Kawhi Leonard to Fred VanVleet. As a matter of fact, he’s had the lowest scoring load of his career as a Raptor. Instead, his main impact on offense comes off of screens, playmaking, and stretching the floor. Here we can see that Gasol has absolutely excelled at shooting when Embiid is on him. Why is that, you may ask? Well, despite Joel being an elite defender, his work on the perimeter still leaves much to be desired for.
Over the past few years, and especially the last few games, Marc has proven that he is someone you can’t leave open. This is what makes him as valuable as he is on offense without identifying as a dynamic scorer. Being an effective stretch big with elite playmaking abilities. Just look at these clips from a Grizzlies win over the 76ers that took place this year.
Seemingly ready to support Markelle Fultz in the event that Mike Conley drives, he completely gravitates towards that zone leaving Gasol completely open. Conley recognizes that Embiid essentially forgot that the Big Burrito was even on the perimeter and desires to dish it to him. He then launches the successful three as he was given more than enough time and space to do so.
Or how about this: the Grizzlies catch the rebound off a missed Sixers shot and pound it up the court. Joel Embiid gets a little carried away and goes to the paint as if his natural instinct is leading him there. Marc Gasol notices this almost instantaneously and takes a step back to the three-point line where he receives the pass. Once again, he is given more than enough time and space to exploit this shotty defensive mistake.
There were more cases of this, but I feel my point here is established. Gasol will theoretically have many more chances to not only shoot the three-ball but with Embiid trying to recover he will also be given a relatively large amount of time to make a play for one of his other teammates.
On a team that is far superior to the abysmal offensive squad the Spaniard belonged to in the former half of the season, he has more to work with and more players to help set him up. Whether that is dishing it out to a cutting Kyle Lowry who goes for the layup or sets up an open Danny Green who is the teams best shooter, Gasol can still greatly hell the offense.
Then you have Ibaka. Though not the shooter or playmaker that Gasol is, he has shown that he is not reluctant to let it fly when given the opportunity, averaging 2.6 three attempts per contest.
16/26 shooting (61.5%)
0/2 deep shooting (0%)
4 free throws made
While the shooting may not stand out like Gasol’s the inside play does. While watching some film there were a few takeaways I noticed. The first of which being Ibaka is not afraid of physicality, at all. While I am sure we all know this, Embiid is a different kind of beast yet Ibaka had shown no fear whatsoever in his size or strength. Just look at this play below, where Embiid puts his arms up in an effort to deter the shot Ibaka takes.
Clearly, Embiid’s strategy failed. Ibaka used his great athletic ability and fearless nature to take the shot right in front of Joel. Speaking of athletic ability, Ibaka is aware of how much faster he is than Embiid in comparison and knows that when it comes to the strength he is a formidable rival.
Just check out this second play which I feel also embodies his success against Embiid. Ibaka drives from the three-point line, keeping a step in-front of Embiid. Joel knows how much force is involved with Ibaka’s drive so flops, but it doesn’t work which results in an easy bucket for Serge.
Gasol and Ibaka are a dream matchup against Joel Embiid on both ends. In theory, defensively, both have the skill to make him very uncomfortable trying to score and create concerning efficiency problems for him. Offensively, Gasol’s ability as a stretch big is something that will be troublesome.
Even if Embiid’s perimeter defense improves, driving to the basket becomes a far easier task for players such as Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam. As for Ibaka, well, his confidence, strength, and speed are all factors that have bothered Embiid this season on a number of occasions already.
I am not trying to say that these two will make Embiid look like some scrub, or that they’ll vastly outplay him. The point is that in a time where many are questioning Gasol’s ability to guard Embiid, I think that there is a good amount of overlooked reasoning for why he should be rather effective. As for Ibaka defending and how the two will do on offense, I believe that has been an overlooked part of the conversation.
The general thesis I have to conclude my thoughts here is that our big men have me feeling very confident about this matchup, and I am anxious to see how they perform. Embiid may very well be the best big in the league, with Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic being his only competition (in my opinion), this could very well be the most important matchup of the series.