Sixers' surge propelled by defensive identity, team ‘togetherness'


Any Sixer who’s touched the floor this season has understood the team’s core defensive principles.

“If the ball’s on the side, it should never come to the middle,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said on Nov. 9. “If the ball’s on the side and it doesn’t come to the middle, there always has to be a low guy.”

A week later, Rivers added, “We want (Joel Embiid) 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.”

Those rules are subject to change in a variety of situations, including when the Sixers struggle against a star guard or like the idea of using P.J. Tucker on the opposing center. 

But in several key ways, the Sixers have known for many months how their coaches want them to defend. 

“I think it’s been great for us,” Georges Niang said following practice Tuesday. “I think we’ve been top 10 (in defensive rating) for the most part of the year, right? That’s what they say; I’m not looking up defensive numbers, trust me. But I think it is a good emphasis. It helps us have an identity — that we’re not letting people go middle and we’re sending them to help, and getting in rotation after that. So I think that’s been huge for us. 

“(Assistant coach) Dan Burke does a great job of teaching us night in and night out with what he wants from the specific matchups. And I think it’s been helpful for us, because our defense has won us some games down the stretch this year.”

The Sixers are indeed top 10 in defensive rating — eighth in the NBA as of Wednesday morning. And though they’ve frequently been flawed on that end of the floor, Niang is right that strong late-game defense has helped them secure tight wins. The Sixers rank third in fourth-quarter defensive rating and second in clutch defensive rating. 

In their comeback win last Friday night over the Trail Blazers, the Sixers nailed their principles on a few crucial plays. 

Though Tyrese Maxey got clobbered by Jusuf Nurkic’s screen, he effectively shaded Damian Lillard away from the middle. Embiid sprinted out to the perimeter and contested his jumper well. 

With De’Anthony Melton again “icing” the pick-and-roll, Lillard swiftly drove baseline. Nurkic didn’t initially roll, so Niang made a good read as the low man to instead focus on the driver. And Embiid showed off his agility by getting back to block the All-Star guard’s floater attempt. 

Obviously, the Sixers often need to handle situations that don’t unfold exactly as envisioned. After Melton failed to lead Lillard to where Embiid was lurking, he twice displayed impressive effort, instincts and length to recover and ultimately impact the play. 

There’s times when the fundamentals won’t be sufficient. On the play below, the Sixers checked the boxes of taking the middle away from Lillard and having the low man (Niang) on the roller. However, Lillard threw a quick pocket pass and Niang couldn’t stop a 7-footer rumbling toward him.  

The Sixers scored the game's final four points after that Nurkic and-one. As a team, they've generally been strong this season at moving on to whatever’s next; it’s one reason they’ve grown rather comfortable at erasing big deficits. 

That quality has been prominent on an individual level, too. Niang, for instance, has never doubted that he’ll shoot his way out of a slump. He’s also admired Danuel House Jr., who’s re-entered the Sixers’ rotation in March and added step-back three-pointers, highlight dunks and a zest for the game to the mix. 

“He’s awesome,” Niang said of House after the Blazers game. “How much energy does he have? I thought I had the most energy, but he definitely is up there. He’s just a great guy to be around. He’s funny, he’s outgoing, and he’s ‘4 the House, 4 the team.’ His spark off the bench … whether it’s defending, chasing someone around, having a spectacular dunk, making a three. 

“He doesn’t get enough credit for how much of a team guy that he is. And I can say that with him playing early, then not playing a bunch, and then coming in and impacting winning. It’s been great to see because he deserves everything that’s come his way.”

On Tuesday, Shake Milton smiled when asked about another high-energy bench player who’s contributed to the Sixers’ 6-1 start to March. 

Like Paul Reed, Milton was drafted late in the second round and played much of his rookie season in the G League as a two-way contract player. 

“Man, P-Reed, that’s my guy,” Milton said. “He’s somebody who’s always had that dog in him. … I’m not going to say I’ve taken him under my wing, but he’s someone I always just want to talk to … because the way he’s come into the league and his situation, I’ve been in kind of a similar spot. So I can tell him what he’s looking for, what he needs to do. And P-Reed is simple, man. He’s going to get out there, he’s going to play hard, and he’s going to make something happen every time he touches the court. 

“For me, I just tell him little things. Of course you might want to work on stuff that you might do later in your career when you have a little bit more opportunity, but I also tell him to stay focused on the things he needs to do right now to stay on the floor and continue to get minutes. P-Reed is definitely accepting anytime somebody’s trying to teach him something that will help him continue to grow. 

“I think that’s the big thing for P. He has a mindset where he wants to grow, he wants to continue to get better. And anytime you have that type of combination — especially with the way he works — he’s going to be good wherever he goes and whatever happens in his story. That’s my guy. I’m proud of him and I’m happy for him.”

Niang called this year’s Sixers “the most focused group I’ve been around." He also noted their “togetherness” has stood out to him recently.

Based on what we've seen and heard in March, that's no surprise. 

“I think we’ve really come together because we truly believe in each other and realize that we have an opportunity to be something great," Niang said. “I think Doc sat us down after that Miami game and was like, ‘Hey, you may have another chance at this, but for most of you, you may not. And you don’t want to sit back when your career is over and be like damn, I wish I took that a little more seriously.’

“And I think that definitely hit guys in the head or in the heart — or maybe in both — where they’re like, ‘All right, let’s really pour into each other and make the most of this so that we can win a championship.’” 

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