76ers’ Joel Embiid still searching for answers to Raptors’ Marc Gasol’s defence

TORONTO – The last time Joel Embiid saw the Toronto Raptors it was in a seven-game slugfest of an Eastern Conference semifinal that saw him shoot just 37 per cent from the field but average 17.6 points.

Embiid struggled in that series because he was battling illness and ultimately ended up in tears as he saw Kawhi Leonard’s dramatic Game 7 winner find the bottom of the hoop to bury his Philadelphia 76ers.

“He was ill throughout the whole experience, really,” said Philadelphia coach Brett Brown before the 76ers faced the Raptors for the first since that iconic moment in Toronto sports history. “It’s just part of pro sport and the journey that we’re all on. It’s all about, at the end of the day, health. It really is. It’s a thing that’s always most on my mind, their spirit and their health. Often time those two are connected. I just know that we believe we might have been in a better position had we had a healthy Joel Embiid for that series.”

On Monday night, Embiid, by all extents, was healthy. But it would appear an affliction of some sort was still plaguing him as, for the first time in his career, he finished with zero points, going 0-for-11 from the field and picking up five fouls in the process as his Sixers lost a very winnable game to the shorthanded Raptors, 101-96.

The illness Embiid seemed to be suffering from Monday night should’ve been a familiar one to him. No, it won’t cause any gastrointestinal issues, but it’s sure to leave a few lasting mental scars. This sickness’ name is Marc Gasol.

It’s been well documented how the defence Gasol played on Embiid was, perhaps, the greatest factor in slowing him down and giving the Raptors a chance to squeeze out of their second-round playoff matchup with Philly. On Monday that continued as Gasol appeared to stymie Embiid every way possible, from contested shots, to blocking layup attempts and even just slapping the ball out of Embiid’s hands.

Nearly no other player in the league has had this kind of success defensively against Embiid, one of the NBA’s premier centres. So why does Gasol seem to eat his lunch all the time?

“[He’s] a former defensive player of the year,” Brown said after the game, referring to the award Gasol won in 2013. “He’s good.”

But it was more than just Gasol’s good individual defence. The Raptors had a plan to take Embiid out of the game and stuck with it, much to the two-time all-star’s chagrin.

“They were trying to make sure I did not touch the ball and they forced me into a lot of tough shots,” said Embiid. “But it didn’t matter, pick-and-roll, Marc being tough on the picks I was setting and on the post. Obviously, they were doubling from the time the ball was in the air. And when you’re not making shots, it’s tough.”

With the loss, the 76ers fell to 11-6, which is still a very respectable record. But this particular loss had to hurt because they were right there once again against the Raptors and came up short, once again, with Embiid’s ineffectiveness, also again, being front and centre.

That the Raptors were able to beat Philly, shorthanded as they were, and shut down Embiid speaks very well to how good Toronto is right now and how good it could be when the team returns to full strength.

On the flip side of this, there’s got to be at least some concerns on Philadelphia’s part that the Raptors, no matter how they look, continually get the better of them, and Embiid in particular.

“They’re a good team. They’ve got guys that can do a lot of things on the basketball court,” said Embiid. “They’re well-coached and they do their jobs and they made sure that they stuck with the plan they had, especially taking me out of the game.

“Defensively, they’re everywhere. They’re so long and they make sure they pack the paint and tonight we made no shots and when you are not making shots and you play against a team like that, it’s really hard. But, we’ve got to get better, especially me.”