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Marc Gasol Is Joel Embiid’s Kryptonite

Joel Embiid has described himself as the “most unstoppable player in the league” — and for good reason. When he’s at his best, like in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, he can make defenders look downright foolish as he pump-fakes his way into windmill dunks. But so far in Philadelphia’s series against Toronto, Game 3 has been the exception. The Raptors have all but shut Embiid down on the offensive end, thanks in large part to Marc Gasol — the man who has perfected the art of stopping the league’s most unstoppable player.

Through five games of the series — which the Raptors lead 3-2 — Gasol has matched up with Embiid on 201 possessions, holding him to just 21 points per 100 possessions. That’s a significant dip from Embiid’s season average of 37 points per 100 possessions.

If you think those numbers are obscured by Embiid’s recent upper respiratory problem, consider this: Over the past two seasons (which is as far back as the NBA’s matchup data goes), Gasol has played against Embiid on nine separate occasions (including the regular season and this year’s playoffs). During that stretch, the two have matched up on a total of 379 possessions. Embiid averages just 19 points per 100 possessions when Gasol is his primary defender, by far his lowest average against anyone who has guarded him on at least 100 possessions.

To put it another way: Against average competition, Embiid rivals Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden as the most prolific scorer in basketball in terms of points per 100 possessions. But when he’s guarded by Gasol, he essentially turns into Dewayne Dedmon.

At 7 feet tall and 250 pounds, Embiid can usually bully smaller defenders and tactically position himself in the post. But Gasol is too big to be pushed around, and it’s forcing Embiid out of his sweet spots. Throughout the series, Gasol has refused to cede ground to Embiid, denying the entry pass into the post and forcing Embiid to catch the ball outside of the paint. During the regular season, Embiid averaged 7.4 touches in the paint per game. Against Gasol and Toronto in the playoffs, Embiid is averaging just 4.2 touches in the paint per game.

Another factor contributing to Embiid’s lack of paint touches is the crowd that’s been forming right around the basket. Fellow Sixer Ben Simmons can’t shoot outside of 10 feet and so positions himself near the rim, which brings his defender to effectively provide help defense when Embiid is in the post. That’s a problem especially when the help defender is Kawhi Leonard, the player who has guarded Simmons most of the series.

To make up for his lack of paint touches, Embiid has had to rely on his jump shot to generate points. But that’s not his strong suit. In the regular season, Embiid shot 34 percent on jumpers. In this series, he’s just 10 for 37 (27 percent) on those shots. Gasol is forcing Embiid to do what he does least well, and it’s working to the Raptors’ advantage.

The fact that Gasol has given Embiid trouble shouldn’t be all that surprising. Even at 34 years old, Gasol can still play like the defensive player of the year he once was. Just ask Nikola Vucevic: Gasol neutralized the All-Star center during the Raptors’ first-round series against the Magic. Vucevic scored just 17 points per 100 possessions when Gasol was the primary defender — a far cry from Vucevic’s season average of 32 points per 100 possessions.

When Gasol was brought to Toronto in a midseason trade, it was reasonable to wonder whether the big Spaniard had enough in the tank to make a difference on a contending team. Those doubts have been put to rest, in part because Gasol has chiseled out a perfect role for himself. In Toronto, Gasol doesn’t need to anchor a defense while also serving as a primary scorer, like he was forced to do in Memphis. Instead, he’s able to focus on what he does best, which is lock down the opposing team’s best big man.

In all fairness to Embiid, he’s reportedly battled through injury on top of illness during the playoffs. And if we’ve learned anything from his monster Game 3, it’s that a healthy Embiid can live up to his self-proclaimed title. The only question is whether he can do it consistently against an elite defensive stopper like Gasol.

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Owen Phillips is a data analyst and writer living in Brooklyn. His work can be found on NPR, The Outline and The Awl.

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