How the Bulls finally beat Joel Embiid, and 5 keys to doing it again

Alex Caruso, Joel Embiid, Chicago Bulls (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Alex Caruso, Joel Embiid, Chicago Bulls (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images) /

After 12 straight losses, the Chicago Bulls finally got their first victory against Joel Embiid on Monday night. This served as a massive step in the right direction for a Bulls team that has struggled to establish an identity this season, and may signal that this squad is finally ready to take the leap and battle with the best the Eastern Conference has to offer.

A closer look at the film shows that it was not just some kind of fluke for the Bulls. Here are 5 things the Bulls did particularly well on Monday night to lessen Embiid’s impact on the game and how they can replicate their success to beat the Sixers again.

1. The Bulls must be proactive on defense against Joel Embiid.

To start the game out, the Bulls made it clear that they were going to aggressively defend Embiid. The Bulls were denying him the ball and sending double teams from all over the court. In the first quarter, especially, Nikola Vučević had one of the best defensive performances that I have seen from him. He made life living hell for Embiid by playing an uncharacteristically physical brand of basketball and consistently denying entry passes to the low post.

2. Taking advantage of the Embiid-less minutes is crucial.

In the 58-minute double overtime thriller, Embiid played 44 minutes despite fouling out at the beginning of the second OT. In the 14 minutes Embiid did not play, the Chicago Bulls outscored the Sixers by 12 points.

I can certainly appreciate what Paul Reed — Embiid’s backup — brings to the table, but he does not have the strength to deal with a true big like Vooch. Additionally, when Embiid left the court the Bulls played much more confidently attacking the basket. The Sixers noticed this and started collapsing into the paint, which opened up shots for guys like Coby White.

3. The Chicago Bulls must continue exploiting the 76ers ‘switch-everything’ defense.

The Sixers’ pick and roll defensive scheme is pretty clear: switch everything, always. With the right personnel of defenders who have the speed and strength to guard across positions, this can be a great strategy. Unfortunately, the Sixers don’t have very many guys who are suited to switches.

Stacey King never misses an opportunity to point this out, and for good reason. Vooch consistently took advantage of Philadelphia’s smaller defenders, such as Harden or even Tobias Harris, whenever they were guarding him and got easy buckets in the paint. In the next game, I hope to see the Bulls guards exploit Embiid on the switches a bit more. Coby White showed us just how dangerous it is for Embiid to be guarding a speedster like him:

4. The Bulls must increase the tempo and get out in transition after forcing turnovers.

One of the biggest narratives for the Bulls all season has been this team’s inability to score the ball in the half-court. Lots could be said about this but my fundamental view is that the Bulls never quite have enough shooting out on the court to punish other teams.

A fix for a bad half-court offense is getting efficient buckets in transition. But, in order to get out in transition, you need to force turnovers. The Bulls forced the Sixers into 21 turnovers and only committed 11 turnovers themselves. Despite this 10-turnover differential, the Sixers still outscored the Bulls 19-14 in fastbreak points. Ayo Dosunmu was the only Bulls player who really looked to push the ball in transition; if Caruso is good to go tonight look for him to run with Dosunmu.

5.  Surprisingly great late-game coaching from Billy Donovan.

All season I have been questioning Billy Donovan, sometimes feeling like our lackluster offense is his fault and other times feeling sympathetic to how hard it is to build a good offense with so little shooting. In the last month, Derrick Jones Jr. has barely seen the floor, the last time he logged 10 or more minutes was on February 11.

DJJ was awesome for the Bulls against Philadelphia, making a huge 3 and a game-saving block in some of the biggest moments. It showed up on the box score too, DJJ was a team-high +13 in just 17 minutes of play. Having the confidence and foresight to see the DJJ was a good matchup against the Sixers changed the game for the Bulls, and I have to give Billy a lot of credit for that.

If the Bulls can continue to emphasize these five points, I see no reason why the curse of Joel Embiid can’t be left in the past, permanently. As good as Embiid, Harden, and the 76ers have been, they have very clear flaws that can be exploited with proper preparation. Taking the fourth and final meeting against Philly would be a massive difference-maker for the Chicago Bulls and may even give this team enough momentum to make some noise in the postseason.

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