‘Zombie' Sixers have varying explanations for woes vs. Heat's zone defense


In theory, beating a zone defense doesn’t sound too difficult — move the ball and bodies, take and make open shots, watch the opposing coach switch strategies.

But Josh Richardson, playing his second game against his former team Wednesday night in the Sixers’ 108-104 loss to the Heat (see observations), understood it wouldn’t be that simple.

“It's easy to get frustrated against because they’ve got a lot of length, they're active in it and it's not as easy as you think to beat a zone, to beat that one,” he said. “So, yeah, it's easy to start just jacking [up shots] or get frustrated with your teammates or something, but you’ve just got to stay together and attack it.”

The Sixers did hold together Wednesday night until Al Horford’s missed three-pointer with four seconds remaining, an improbable opportunity to erase a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit. They didn’t fare as well with attacking, though, and Miami’s 37-19 advantage in the second quarter was ultimately decisive. 

The team's collective frustration was palpable. At one stage in the third quarter, Tobias Harris clapped with apparent annoyance as Ben Simmons took his time bringing the ball up the floor.

Harris wasn’t happy with the prevailing malaise.

“The second-quarter stretch where they made a run, we had no energy,” he said. “It was like we were zombies out there walking around. Too many easy baskets and whatnot.”

For Harris and for Joel Embiid, who scored 12 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter, there wasn’t a complex explanation for the Sixers’ struggles against the zone. 

“I don’t know,” Embiid said. “Just move the ball. Make shots. I felt like in that fourth quarter I was a little bit aggressive and my teammates found me. In the first half, that wasn’t the case. So, we’ve gotta do a better job of being locked in from the beginning. ... We talked about it. It wasn’t a surprise, so we just gotta do our job.”

“The key to beating a zone like that is you’ve just got to make shots,” Harris said.

Brett Brown struck a different tone. 

I think that we ended up overthinking it, probably too much. I feel like we’ve been really quite good against a zone this year. I think we’ve got the fifth-best offense in the NBA against a zone, so they tell me. I feel like it put us on our heels, and I don’t feel like we responded the way that I thought we would. I think it crept into our defense — it watered us down on both sides of the ball. Finally we got some life going in the fourth period, but I feel like it was as much a mentality and mood swing as much as anything. I think structurally, we got the ball inside, we were 12 for 39 from three. I think it just put water on our mood.

There were many available excuses. 

Miami hit several incredibly difficult threes late in the shot clock. 

Mike Scott was 1 of 6 from three.

Richardson missed six of seven field goals in the first half and all four of his long-range shots as he played through a wrist injury suffered Thursday on a collision with the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown. He looked more comfortable in the second half, assuming the majority of the ball handling duties as Simmons took the “dunker spot." The 26-year-old made 5 of 10 field goals and 3 of 6 threes after halftime, and he ditched an accessory.

“It was OK,” he said. “My tape was pissing me off in the third quarter so I just took it off and played without it and hit a couple shots. It's looking like I'm just gonna have to suck it up without the tape and just play without it.”

The most glaring issue might be Simmons’ continued stance — for the most part — against shooting jump shots. Every one of Simmons’ 13 field goal attempts vs. Miami was from inside the paint. He played another impressive defensive game, prompting Brown to say that Simmons should be “considered amongst the elite and one of the better Defensive Player of the Year candidates.” 

However, against a set defense, Simmons added little offensive value late in the game. From seven or more feet away, Simmons is 11 for 47 this year.

It seems finding a middle ground between his stated preseason attitude of “If it’s open, I’ll take it” and the current state of any jump shot being an unusual event will be a gradual process.

“I think getting into my spots and positions,” he told reporters Sunday in Brooklyn. “Being the point guard, you don’t want to come down and just jack it up every time. So, finding that rhythm and getting into situations where I’m comfortable.”

Even after a 12-for-39 effort, the Sixers have not shot the three poorly overall this season. Their 36.2 percent clip is 10th in the NBA.

But, especially after Miami’s success, they expect to face more zone. 

“Yeah, but to be honest we kind of hope they do play it because we know we're not going to shoot like that,” Harris said. “We make a couple shots ... that's why teams don't really play zone a lot, because guys make shots and they get out of the zone real quick — especially three-point looks.”

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