Joel Embiid is struggling when being defended by Al Horford, and that has to change for the Philadelphia 76ers to reach their ceiling.
Tuesday night’s marquee NBA matchup featured the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers, in a game that may have implications for playoff seeding in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics went home with a 112-109 win, with a key moment coming late when Joel Embiid appeared to be fouled by Al Horford and the Celtics got a basket on the other end to extend their lead to four.
Embiid put a typical stat line on Tuesday night, with 23 points, 14 rebounds, three assists and two blocks, and he was matched by Horford (23 points, eight rebounds, five assists and four steals). But the Celtics are now 10-2 against the 76ers since the start of last season, including a 4-1 series win in the Eastern Conference semifinals last year.
Embiid ended his post-game press conference with a profane assessment of the officiating Tuesday night, after dismissing Horford’s effect on his performance.
"He’s not doing anything,” Embiid said when asked about being guarded by Horford. “I was sleep-walking for three quarters, and that’s on me.“Like I said, that’s on me. It had nothing to do with anybody."
Embiid gets some credit for owning any shortfall in his performance, but there’s no doubt Horford is doing something right on the defensive end.
Via Tim Bontemps of ESPN:
"In the eight games these two teams have played since the start of last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, Embiid has shot just 25-for-70 (36 percent) against Horford, including 5-for-16 (31 percent) Tuesday, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Against all other defenders, Embiid has gone 48-for-52 (52 percent), including 4-for-6 Tuesday."
Bontemps added that Embiid has taken 12 of his 16 3-point attempts against the Celtics this season with Horford guarding him. That’s a sure sign of frustration and trying to find something that works.
As evidenced by the non-call late in Tuesday night’s game, Horford seems to purely not be intimidated by Embiid as other big men might be. That’s a product of experience and savvy, which Boston has more of than Philadelphia does at this point.
Philadelphia’s struggles against the other top teams in the East is not unique to Celtics. With an 0-3 mark now against Boston this season, only a selection of the bottom-feeders in the conference have a worse record against the Bucks, Celtics and Raptors thus far.
The 76ers, with Tobias Harris now in place, have some time to figure things out. But a key part of getting over the hump this year, and reaching their ceiling come playoff time, will be Embiid solving Horford. When it comes down to it, that looks like it will be equal parts physical and mental.