76ers

Sixers' new defensive concepts: 'Make them feel you,' the 'corral blitz' and more

Sixers' new defensive concepts: 'Make them feel you,' the 'corral blitz' and more

Under Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs, Ime Udoka was responsible for "eight or nine [opposing] teams," he said Monday night, strategizing on both ends of the floor. Now, the new Sixers assistant coach has a narrower focus and is "looking forward to a different challenge."

Udoka will be taking on the job of de facto defensive coordinator for the Sixers, a position held for much of last season by new Saint Joseph's head coach Billy Lange.

He discussed his defensive philosophy Monday at Brett Brown's fifth annual "Coach the Coaches" clinic in Camden, New Jersey, and previewed several changes. We looked at tweaks to expect offensively here.

Different pick-and-roll approaches 

Pick-and-roll defense was problematic for the Sixers throughout last season. Monday night, Udoka reviewed the team's middle pick-and-roll coverages for 2019-20.

In “big-small” pick-and-rolls, dropping the big man — having him essentially play “center field,” as Udoka said —  sounds like it will still be foundational. Below is an example of that coverage, which aims to encourage opponents to take long two-point shots.

As we noted last year, that strategy often failed against smaller, quicker guards who could exploit the open space created by Joel Embiid falling far back into the paint, or who could simply knock down those long twos at an efficient rate on a given night.

Udoka demonstrated the concept of “up to touch” coverage, in which the big man will come up until he can reach out and touch the back of the screener. The idea behind this approach is to initially close down that gaping space in the middle of the floor, then have the big retreat into center field. 

So, on a play like this one from March 25 in Orlando, Embiid would be a step or two higher, to the point that he could touch Nikola Vucevic’s back. That would theoretically give Evan Fournier less room to drive to the rim once he gets by JJ Redick.

Udoka also noted the addition of Josh Richardson should make the Sixers better equipped to defend smaller guards, though it sounds like, along with different personnel, we’ll see a conceptual shift. When a coach in the crowd asked Udoka the right time to “blitz” the pick-and-roll, Udoka joked that Kemba Walker scored 60 points against the Sixers last season, prompting Brown to get up from his seat to give Udoka a hug.

The Sixers did turn to the blitz on desperate occasions in 2018-19, like when D’Angelo Russell was in the midst of scoring 38 points against them on Nov. 25.

The play above is a successful execution of a full-on blitz, with Jimmy Butler and Mike Muscala forcing Russell to pass the ball, and excellent subsequent rotations.

Udoka on Monday introduced a “corral blitz,” which entails the two defenders leveling off the ball handler as opposed to jumping out at him in the kamikaze style of a full-on blitz. When the Sixers blitzed last year, they generally did so aggressively, so that seems like it will be a notable wrinkle.

It’s not the same thing, but the corral blitz is similar to the hedge and recover defense the Sixers used vs. the Raptors in the playoffs on pick-and-rolls involving Kawhi Leonard as the ball handler and Redick as a defender.

The main difference with the corral blitz is, in the play above, Ben Simmons would also adopt Redick’s approach of leveling off Leonard instead of guarding him straight up.

New points of emphasis 

Philosophically, one of Udoka’s first remarks was that he wants the Sixers’ defense to “make them feel you,” to “jam the ball handler.” The Sixers forced 12.7 turnovers per game in 2018-19, 27th in the NBA, and he envisions that number increasing.

“That’s something we talk about, creating turnovers,” he said. “We want to up our physicality on the ball. That should help there. And there are multiple things we can do out of timeouts to trap guys and make them more uncomfortable.”

Another conceptual priority for Udoka is making the most of the Sixers’ versatility. He thinks highly of Embiid and Al Horford, and will perhaps be more willing than Lange was to let his big men switch, blitz and extend themselves beyond “center field” defensively. 

“[Embiid and Horford are] two of the best bigs at defending the pick-and-roll and protecting the paint, and guarding smalls on the perimeter,” Udoka said. “I think our versatility and flexibility there is almost endless. Coming off the bench, as well — with James [Ennis] and some of the young guys we have, we can do multiple things there.”

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Sixers take out frustrations on Cavaliers in blowout win

Sixers take out frustrations on Cavaliers in blowout win

BOX SCORE

If ever a team needed a laugher, it was the Sixers.

After dropping five straight road games, they took their frustrations out on the Cavaliers in a 114-95 win at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse Sunday.

It’s the Sixers’ first victory away from home since their thrilling win in Portland on Nov. 2. They improve to 8-5 on the young season. They’re back at the Wells Fargo Center Wednesday to take on the Knicks (7 p.m./NBCSP)

Here are observations from the win.

That’s how you get right

The first few possessions were not great for the Sixers defensively. It looked like another game that could be doomed by poor pick-and-roll defense and turnovers — a familiar theme throughout the young season. 

Boy, did that change in a hurry. 

The Sixers got a nice defensive boost from James Ennis, ending the first quarter on a 17-4 run and assisting on 12 of their first 15 makes. They played smothering defense and turned that into easy offense.

It was by far the Sixers’ best half of the season as they shot 68.3 percent from the field, committed just five turnovers and outscored the Cavs, 68-44. 

The most encouraging thing is that they didn’t let up. They kept their foot on the gas and never let Cleveland back in the game.

This is what it was supposed to look like

The Sixers had lost five of their last seven, which exacerbated the issues of the starting five. On Sunday, they looked like a well-oiled machine. We saw the “bully ball” offense out in full force. With their size, the Sixers are going to have mismatches pretty much every night. It was a clear emphasis against the Cavs. 

You saw Ben Simmons find Josh Richardson for a wide open three out of the post. Tobias Harris got doubled in the post and found Joel Embiid for an easy bucket. Al Horford ran the pick-and-pop with Simmons for a short jumper. 

No, Cleveland is not a defensive juggernaut, but this was the most encouraging offensive showing by the starters this season. At times, their ball movement was unreal. Now it’s about taking this performance into their next game.

It’s worth noting that Harris appears to be off the schneid as he stuffed the stat sheet with a game-high 27 points (12 of 14), five rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks.

When Jo and Ben are at their best …

For those screaming that Embiid needs to be in the post, this had to be refreshing. There’s no secret to it. Brett Brown didn’t make any crazy adjustments. It boils down to Embiid running rim to rim instead of three-point line to three-point line. He got down the floor and got early position for easy post ups. He screened and rolled hard to the rim as well, which makes a huge difference. He was his dominant self Sunday, but more importantly, he played just a little over 22 minutes.

Though as mentioned it was against the Cavs, it’s always encouraging to see both Embiid and Simmons get going in the same game. Cedi Osman was no match for Simmons. Simmons took him off the dribble and punished him in the post. Simmons also continues to be strong defensively. He looks more engaged this season and well on his way to earning some type of All-Defensive Team honors. 

He finished with 10 points, 11 assists, four rebounds, two blocks and a steal in just under 26 minutes.

Boost from the bench

The Sixers got just 11 points from their bench Friday in Oklahoma City. The reserves had 20 at the half Sunday.

Ennis was a huge part of that. He hit a trio of corner threes and was active defensively and on the glass throughout. Ennis has given the Sixers solid run his last three games. He had a season-high 14 points.

It’s clear that Furkan Korkmaz has cooled from his torrid pace, but it was good to see the Turkish wing put the ball on the floor and make a couple plays for 13 points. Rookie Matisse Thybulle was good in his first-half run, hitting a three and finishing on a rare drive. Trey Burke got the backup point guard minutes over Raul Neto.

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Sixers at Cavaliers: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Sixers at Cavaliers: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

The Sixers (7-5) will look to get back into the win column in Cleveland when they take on the Cavaliers (4-7) this afternoon.

Here are the essentials for today’s game:

When: 3 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m.
Where: Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia+ 
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch:

Time to get right

There’s no such thing as a good loss, but man, the Sixers’ losses have been particularly brutal. On Friday night, they held a nine-point lead with 7:20 to go but gave up a 12-2 run and eventually lost in overtime to the Thunder.

The Sixers have glaring issues — especially in their starting five — but Brett Brown feels like he knows what they are.

“If you're sick and you don't know why, that's a problem,” Brown said. “We are in a tough spot right now, but it's a long year. I think that it doesn't take much for me to understand where we have to get better. And it's really that simple. If you're scratching your head, sort of confused, then I think we got some problems and that's not what I'm doing. I think the guys understand the areas that matter most that can best impact changing the way things are going and get back on the winning side.”

We'll see.

Taking care of business

This Cavs team isn’t as bad as perhaps we all thought coming into this season. They start two extremely young guards in Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, but they’re still flanked by veteran bigs Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson.

Cleveland also gave the Sixers all they could handle earlier this week — especially veteran guard Jordan Clarkson (20 points). The Sixers were able to sneak out of the Wells Fargo Center with a 98-97 win. Then again, when is the last time this team played a game that wasn’t close?

While the Cavs are maybe better than anticipated, this is a team the Sixers should be able to get well against. On Tuesday, they held Cleveland scoreless for over three minutes to close out the game. They need to bring that for 48 minutes and get right with a win over a team they’re clearly more talented than. 

Sorting out the bench

Furkan Korkmaz was scorching hot for a six-game stretch. He shot 50.9 percent from three and averaged 13.8 points in mostly bench minutes. In his last three games, he’s just 4 of 16 from distance. The issue with Korkmaz is if he’s not hitting shots, he doesn’t bring much else to the table. You saw Oklahoma City pick on him in overtime after Tobias Harris fouled out.

Korkmaz has been getting the most minutes off Brown’s bench recently. Should he be? Rookie Matisse Thybulle got off to a roaring start, but has looked overmatched offensively. With that said, he’s just so special defensively, Brown should deal with the growing pains on the other end. In games Thybulle has played at least 12 minutes, the Sixers are 6-1.

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