Adjustments, gambles help Sixers play outstanding second-half D vs. Denver


Tobias Harris had no doubts about his defense on Saturday. 

Sixers head coach Doc Rivers thought it was at least worth asking the question, though.

With his team down 15 points to the Nuggets following a third straight subpar defensive half, Rivers had made the effective adjustment of sticking P.J. Tucker on Nikola Jokic. Should he use Harris against Jamal Murray down the stretch of a tight game? 

“I was going to go with De’Anthony (Melton),” Rivers said, “and then I went to Tobias and said, ‘Can you guard Murray? We can get bigger, have more size.’ And I won’t say what he said when I asked him the question, but it was filled with bad language — in a good way.

“And he did it, so that was good for us. That’s what we mean by Tobias being a star in whatever role we ask him to be in.”

After the Sixers conceded 133 points in a victory Wednesday over the Nets and allowed 73 in Saturday’s first half, Denver only scored 46 post-intermission. 

Joel Embiid had a special 47-point, 18-rebound performance in the Sixers' seventh straight win, but Rivers decided at halftime to go with Tucker’s pesky, zero-budging style against Jokic and give Embiid more freedom to roam. 

“We talked about it last night and the night before,” Rivers said. “I watched the Miami game from a year ago and I thought Tuck did a really good job on him, so it just felt like at halftime, we weren’t up into him. He was catching it where he wanted to catch it. And he’s such a focal point of their offense that if Tuck could get up under him and make him catch it above the three-point line, now those handoffs, you can go under. They don’t matter anymore, whereas in the first half, he caught everything at the elbows and low. 

“Listen, Joel was phenomenal — he had 47 points — but we don’t win the game if P.J. Tucker doesn’t play. The way he played in the second half is extraordinary.”

Two-time All-Defensive wing Matisse Thybulle felt Tucker meaningfully elevated his teammates' defense. 

“I think Tuck kind of spearheaded the defense in the second half. He made things so hard for Jokic, whether it was touching the ball, dribbling, passing, shooting,” Thybulle said. “He couldn’t get anything easy. And that makes us a lot better, because Jokic’s ability to take super-small windows and make plays for his team is like no one else in the NBA. We had a larger margin of error because of Tuck and his intensity.”

Thybulle again had a significant impact Saturday, recording three steals in only 12 minutes for the second consecutive outing. He’s sometimes faced a harsh whistle — and sometimes hurt himself with unnecessary risks — but Thybulle committed no fouls against Denver and drew an important one. 

Jokic stepped up to screen for Murray late in the third quarter as the shot clock wound down and made good contact on Thybulle. He recovered quickly, though, and Murray got an offensive foul for kicking his leg out on his three-point attempt. Those types of calls don’t often seem to fall in Thybulle’s favor when they’re borderline, but he was rewarded for his effort on this occasion. The Sixers continued on a run that ultimately stretched to 14-0. 

“It’s important, I think, to prevent both the offense and the defense from guys kicking (their legs) out and trying to draw fouls,” Thybulle said. “I feel like the ref made the right call in that situation.”

For the third consecutive year, Thybulle is on track to lead all wings in both steal percentage and block percentage, according to Cleaning the Glass. He’s the NBA’s leader in steals per 36 minutes (2.6), while Paul Reed and Melton rank third and fourth, respectively. The Sixers as a team have improved from 17th in defensive turnover percentage last season to fifth. 

Though Thybulle’s instincts aren’t flawless, they do frequently serve him well. He took a pause when asked about snagging two steals in the backcourt on Saturday. 

“It’s a gamble that worked out and I’m glad it worked out in my favor,” he said with a smile. “Let’s put it that way.”

Harris and Tucker also came up with fourth-quarter steals. They were crucial ones, too. 

As Jokic backed down Tucker in the middle of the floor, Harris was emboldened to strike.

“I saw that when Jokic had the ball, he had his back turned," Harris said. “I usually don’t take those type of gambles, but I thought to myself, ‘He’s too far removed from this guy in the corner. I can go get this real quick.’ So just learning. I’ve been in those positions of guarding top guys in the NBA. That’s something I wasn’t prepared to do early in my career, but it’s just growth in my development and game. I look forward to more and more matchups like that.”

The film shows Murray actually was nearby on the wing, not miles away in the corner, but Harris obviously pounced at the perfect moment. 

Seconds after scoring his only points on a tip-in, Tucker stripped Jokic of the ball and set the stage for Embiid’s game-sealing three.

“(Thybulle), De’Anthony, Tuck, Tobias tonight — you need guys to defend in a league where teams are scoring 126 and 119,” Rivers said with a chuckle. “You still need to get stops, and I thought we did that. I thought all of our defensive players were amazing today.”

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