How Have Embiid, Sixers Cracked Brooklyn’s Double Team Strategy?

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) reacts after a score against the Brooklyn Nets during the third quarter in game two of the 2023 NBA playoffs at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid usually is able to dominate the floor using his immense scoring ability. He led the league in scoring this season, averaging 33.1 points per game. However, he has had to find other ways to impact the game thus far in the Philadelphia 76ers‘ first-round matchup against the Brooklyn Nets.

Brooklyn came into the series with a game plan to send constant double, and sometimes triple, teams to Embiid in order to limit what the big fella can do. It has been a successful strategy, at least in terms of his scoring, thus far in the series. Through two games, Embiid is averaging just 23 points per game.

In choosing to double Embiid every time he touches the ball, the Nets gambled that the Sixers’ supporting cast would not be able to beat them. Thus far, they have lost that bet. In Game 1, the Sixers set a new franchise record for most 3-pointers in a playoff game, shooting 21-of-43 from long distance. The shots did not fall as much in Game 2, but the Sixers still came away with a victory. Embiid, facing constant double teams, has had to spread the ball around the floor and trust his teammates to knock down shots.

“I’m really proud of Jo. You look at his numbers, those are dominating numbers,” head coach Doc Rivers said after Game 2, via Kyle Neubeck of PhillyVoice. “But he let it, especially in the second half, he just let the game come to him. It’s the happiest I’ve ever seen him since I’ve been here with other guys making shots. He was really celebrating his teammates tonight because of what they were trying to do to him. I think that’s a great statement.”

Despite the Sixers having a 2-0 series lead, not everything went smoothly. They sleepwalked through much of the first half on Monday. Brooklyn made some adjustments in the way they doubled Embiid, changing both the direction and timing of the doubles. Embiid got sped up, resulting in four turnovers in the first half alone. The few times he effectively handled the doubles in the first half came when he established deep post position.

The Sixers turned things around in the second half. They rediscovered their successful strategy from Game 1, beginning with embracing the double teams on Embiid. Doubling someone often results in another player being left wide open somewhere on the floor. Between that and correcting some of the team’s spacing issues, the Sixers’ offense got into a rhythm. Embiid finished the game with seven assists, but that is underselling his impact. He had a handful of “hockey assists,” essentially serving as the hub of the offense.

Philadelphia spent much of the first half overthinking things. One of the keys to their success in the second half of Game 2 was to simplify things and take what the defense gave them. They started giving Embiid the ball more around the elbow, an area he had a ton of success at this season. With the proper floor spacing around him, the Sixers generated one open look after another. One of the primary beneficiaries of the open looks was Tyrese Maxey. Eighteen of his 33 points came in the second half and he shot 6-of-13 from 3-point range on the night.

Another tweak the Sixers made to help improve their floor spacing was putting P.J. Tucker in the corner and Tobias Harris in the dunker spot. On the first play in the video below, Embiid did a simple pass fake to Maxey (he was left open from the Brooklyn double team). This drew Mikal Bridges over to defend Maxey. Cameron Johnson was left alone to defend both Tucker and Harris on the strong side. Embiid passed to Tucker in the corner and Johnson made an unnecessary wild closeout. That left Harris open for an easy dunk off an entry pass from Tucker.

The second play in the video involves the same concept. However, this time Brooklyn crashes down on Harris while leaving Maxey wide open in the weak side corner. Harris executes the pass and it is an easy three points for the Sixers.

Moving Harris to the dunker spot is a logical adjustment for the Sixers to make. The teams should use this strategy more often moving forward this postseason. It is clear from Harris’ comments to reporters he sees how the move makes sense.

“They want me down there to be able to finish, but also I think I got one where I kicked it out to Tyrese as well,” Harris said after the win in Game 2. “I’m not going to give out the whole gameplan, but it is to be versatile in that spot, to create space, that’s the biggest thing. To see where the defense is coming from and how we can get an open look from three or an open layup for that.”

The Sixers developed a clear answer for Brooklyn’s double teaming of Embiid. They just have to play with patience and consistently execute it.

“They’re giving you the answers with their traps. Trust your stuff, trust your spacing, move the ball and the right guys are going to end up with the ball,” Rivers said after the game. “And if we do it enough, eventually Jo, you’re going to get one-on-ones, and then you’re going to dominate the game.”

After the Sixers put some cracks in Brooklyn’s double team strategy early in the second half, Embiid began receiving more single coverage. He, as he has all season long, ate it up. On one play, he bullied Nic Claxton before getting an easy layup. Brooklyn ran some small-ball lineups on Monday, and Embiid had no problem dominating Royce O’Neale in single coverage late in the game.

Embiid would have no issue dominating the game as a scorer, but Brooklyn has not given him that opportunity. This series serves as evidence of the different ways he can impact the game outside of just scoring the basketball. The Embiid of years past would have gotten frustrated by the constant double teams. That frustration would then have leaked into other areas of his game. This season he has matured and is taking pride in being a multi-faceted player.

“A lot of people think I just love scoring the basketball, which I don’t think it’s true,” Embiid said on Monday. “I enjoy winning and doing whatever it takes to win, some nights I might shoot a lot and score a lot. Some nights I’m gonna get double-teamed and have to make the passes, but I believe in playing the right way, which is getting teammates involved. Double [and] triple teams, making sure everybody touches the ball, sees the ball, that’s what I believe in. It’s fun playing that way. It’s almost like scoring the ball when you just made two or three shots in a row, I think it’s the same as passing the ball. You just passed the ball, guys just made two or three shots in a row, that’s exciting … sometimes, you got to score a lot, and sometimes you got to pass and trust that everybody’s going to make shots. At the end of the day it’s whatever it takes to win. I turned the ball over a lot, which I’m going to correct.”

Embiid’s performance is a big reason why the Sixers possess a 2-0 series lead. He took everything Brooklyn threw at him and continued to find ways to impact the game at a high level. Hopefully he can maintain this type of impact throughout the remainder of the postseason.