Sixers honing defensive schemes and seeing serious improvement


In the week since his return from an illness, Joel Embiid led the NBA in scoring with 40 points per game. 

No surprises there; a 101-point weekend didn’t hurt. However, the Sixers went 3-1 in large part thanks to another significant stat: The team’s 101.0 defensive rating during that stretch was the league’s best, per Cleaning the Glass. 

In the 10 games prior, they’d ranked 21st with a 114.6 defensive rating. 

“As a team, I think with the schemes, we’ve kind of settled on what we’re trying to do,” Embiid said Sunday night after posting a 59-point, 11-rebound, eight-assist, seven-block stat line that’s still a tremendous challenge to fully grasp. 

Embiid feels he and the Sixers have returned to what’s worked for them in the past. He's focused on protecting the rim and being at the level of the screen on pick-and-rolls.

Has any of that shift stemmed from Embiid’s on-the-spot, in-game decisions? 

“No, that’s what we’re doing,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said following practice Wednesday. “We don’t want to switch the five, as much as we can. First of all, just with the way we’re playing and at the pace we’re playing, he’d be exhausted. We don’t want him chasing guards.

“We want him up at the screen, being able to get back. We want our low man to take the roller as much as he can, and Jo will get back. And we want our guards fighting over the screens. … We’ve been better when we’ve done that. Out of a timeout, we’re switching everything. But for the most part, we’re switching one through four.”

Rivers has previously turned to zone on occasion with the aim of enhancing personnel strengths or mitigating weaknesses. For instance, Matisse Thybulle and De’Anthony Melton are an appealing duo at the top of a defense.

But, when it comes to the Sixers’ base defense, the same principles apparently hold true for everyone. While Melton is clearly more adept at working over screens than Maxey, both have that same task. 

“Yeah, it’s every guard,” Rivers said. “Every once in a while, if it’s a guard on the other team that we’re worried about — not our guards; our guards can get over — but if it’s a guard that wants to go downhill or wants to attack, we may trap. And that still allows Joel to get back to his guy.”

The Sixers were light on perimeter players overall Wednesday. Rivers said Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz did not participate. James Harden (right foot tendon sprain) also remains out.

According to Rivers, Thybulle has a “tweaked ankle.” The 25-year-old wing suffered a right ankle sprain on Nov. 2 but played in the Sixers’ next five contests. He started the team’s last two games and played 57 total minutes in wins over the Hawks and Jazz. Korkmaz missed the Utah game with a left knee effusion. 

“I don’t think he’ll be out that long,” Rivers said of Korkmaz. “He may miss a game or two, but I don’t think more than that.”

Even with Embiid’s heroics, offense has generally been a struggle for the Sixers in Harden’s absence. The team scrimmaged for an extended period of Wednesday’s practice and Rivers certainly didn’t love everything he saw. 

“Just being able to run a set, honest to God,” Rivers said when asked about keys for his guards offensively. “And I’m not even joking. Talking. Today we’re having a scrimmage and a play broke down. And literally, De’Anthony and Tyrese, there’s complete silence. And I was sitting there thinking, ‘Now, how is anyone else going to know what we’re doing if our two guards aren’t saying anything?’ 

“Sometimes you don’t say anything because you don’t know what to say, and so that’s what we’re working on. We really need those two, if someone takes you out of an action, to be able to get to the second action. And it’s not easy right now.”

Those offensive issues have at least been less damaging lately because of the Sixers’ improvements on the other end.

In addition to settling on half-court schemes they’ve executed well, the Sixers have made major strides with transition defense after a dreadful start. 

“I think there was a point where Doc was like, ‘If you don’t get back on defense, I’m going to take you out of the game,’” Georges Niang said. “So I think that motivated a couple more guys to get back on defense. But when you’re giving teams … we call them pick-sixes, where they can just lay the ball up uncontested, that’s kind of deflating, especially when they’re making you work on the offensive end.

“I think as an overall unit, we realized if we could eliminate eight to 10 points in transition, that narrows the gap of the game, and we could definitely pull out more wins if we could take away transition points. I think it was Toronto where we really started harping on that, and I think it’s worked out pretty well for us.”

With their short break ending soon, the Sixers would surely be satisfied if their defensive performance this next week is similar to the past one.

They’ll have one more practice before a quirky chunk of the schedule that includes a back-to-back against the Bucks and Timberwolves followed by another back-to-back with the Nets and Hornets. 

“Yeah, (Embiid has) made a difference, but it’s also each game, everyone’s more and more bought in,” Thybulle said Sunday. “More and more guys are talking. We’re becoming more of a cohesive unit and I think that just translates into a better team.”

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