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Nick Nurse Is Grumpy With Joel Embiid

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - APRIL 18: Head coach Nick Nurse of the Toronto Raptors looks on during the fourth quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers during Game Two of the Eastern Conference First Round at Wells Fargo Center on April 18, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

On Monday night, Joel Embiid was doing stuff like this against the Raptors, so Game 2 was not much of a contest.

Fred Van Vleet had to play 44 minutes and hoist 16 threes, which tells you all you need to know about the knock-on effects of the Raps losing two (more like three, since Gary Trent Jr. missed all three of his shots and committed four fouls in his horrid 10 minutes) of their best wings to unlucky Game 1 injuries, or in Trent’s case, a non-COVID illness. They predictably lost, to a Philadelphia 76ers team led by a Tyrese Maxey (again) and Embiid himself, who clocked 31 points and 11 rebounds. Embiid also shot 14 free throws, including 12 in the first quarter, which matched the Raptors total for the entire game. Embiid scored 19 of his 31 points in that first frame, and even though the Raptors led after the first quarter, the attritive damage caused by Embiid’s pounding in the post added up. Several Raptors got in early foul trouble, and the physical toll of trying to contain Embiid probably led to soggy second and third quarters, in which Philly outscored Toronto 63-38.

Embiid seems like one of the most frustrating players to guard or scheme against, because his physicality extracts something from anyone who tries to stand with him. Nobody can really stop him one-on-one, which means coaches must warp their defenses into unsustainably contingent shapes to slow him down, which then lead to outcomes like Maxey’s 38-point Game 1. This all seems incredibly frustrating, especially since Scottie Barnes had to miss Game 2 after Embiid stepped on him. The Raptors’ aggressive defensive scheme is rendered ineffective by a tightly officiated game, and Embiid is tall enough that he tends to land inadvertent elbows. If my schemes led to 12 free throws in a quarter, I would be pissed, as Raps coach Nick Nurse was. Here he is at the end of the game, pointing out a plain truth to Embiid: “You get calls.” Embiid responds that he gets calls because he gets fouled, a point which Nurse only half concedes.

After the game, both participants in the exchange were asked about it. Nurse sarcastically brought up the elbow thing. “At least there wasn’t as many elbows thrown to the face tonight that we had to endure,” he said. “He was saying to me that, ‘I’m going to keep making all the free throws if you keep fouling. And I said, ‘Well, you might have to.’ But a good player, man. I got a lot of respect for him. He’s certainly playing great here. There’s nothing there but us trying to compete against him and him trying to compete against us.”

Embiid also stated his respect for Nurse, before saying that he told him to can it.

The solution here is simple: lean into the Seahawks strategy, foul Embiid on literally every play, and hope that like only half of them get called.