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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2020 NBA schedule: Sixers set to play 3 scrimmages before season resumes

2020 NBA schedule: Sixers set to play 3 scrimmages before season resumes

The NBA on Saturday released its scrimmage schedule for the 22 teams participating in the league’s restart in Orlando. 

The Sixers are set to play three scrimmages:

July 24, 3:30 p.m. — Grizzlies
July 26, 12 p.m. — Thunder
July 28, 8:30 p.m. — Mavericks

The scrimmages are intended to serve as a final ramp-up into the resumption of the season. The Sixers, who began holding mandatory individual workouts at their practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, starting on Wednesday, are scheduled to arrive at Disney World next Thursday.

Brett Brown said Wednesday he’d like his team to be at a “B” fitness base that he can help improve to an “A” by the time seeding games start. It’s been challenging for many players to stay in shape because of restrictions related to the coronavirus. Matisse Thybulle, for one, said Thursday he doesn’t like running but it was his “only choice.”

"It’s obviously not basketball-type conditioning,” Thybulle said, “but it kept me at a cardio fitness level to where now that we’ve come back and started, and I’ve started doing my basketball workouts, I have a really solid baseline to build off.”

The hiatus has allowed Ben Simmons to recover from the back injury that sidelined him for the Sixers’ last eight games, and Simmons noted he's added muscle and feels more explosive.

Al Horford also said, “I probably wasn’t where I wanted to be this season” in terms of health, and that the time off has been helpful for him. 

Below is the Sixers’ schedule for the final eight games:

Aug. 1, 7 p.m.: Indiana
Aug. 3, 8 p.m: San Antonio
Aug. 5, 4 p.m.: Washington
Aug. 7, 6:30 p.m.: Orlando
Aug. 9, 6:30 p.m.: Portland
Aug. 11, 4:30 p.m.: Phoenix
Aug. 12, 6:30 p.m.: Toronto 
Aug. 14: Houston 

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How bubbly Matisse Thybulle is taking things in stride during bizarre rookie year

How bubbly Matisse Thybulle is taking things in stride during bizarre rookie year

Matisse Thybulle was his usual bubbly self Friday. The Sixers’ rookie literally hopped — like he actually jumped into his seat — on a video conference call with reporters. He signed off by calling all of us nerds.

The 2019 first-round pick was having a standout first season before play was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. Though his playing time had fluctuated, head coach Brett Brown said earlier in the season that he was grooming the young wing for the playoffs.

Still, Thybulle won’t take anything for granted as the team prepares to leave for the Disney World “bubble” next week.

“For me, every time I get out on the court, it’s a challenge to maintain, to keep my spot on the team,” Thybulle said. “And then with keeping the spot, you can never be stagnant.”

On opening night, Thybulle was asked to defend All-Star guard Kemba Walker. Walker had given the Sixers problems in the past and the rookie didn’t get off to a great start, committing two quick fouls. As the game went on, Thybulle settled in and showed the defensive prowess the Sixers drafted him for.

All season long, Thybulle has done well to take things as they come during a bizarre rookie year. He’s planning to take that same mentality to Florida.

Nobody really knows what’s going to happen," Thybulle said, "nobody really knows what to expect, or how things are going to go, or what anybody or any team looks like. Instead of setting expectations for myself or what I think the experience is going to be like, it’s been just trying to take each new step of this process as a new challenge, and then figuring out, when I get there, how I’m going to get through it.

"If you want to look at all the unknowns, you’ll just go crazy. Taking what I know and what I can control and trying to make the best out of that.

What we know about Thybulle is he has a propensity for disruption on the defensive end. He leads all rookies in steals — by a healthy margin — and is fifth in blocks. He’s one of only eight players in the NBA to have at least 80 steals and 40 blocks.

In order to get so many deflections and wreak havoc defensively, you need to be in top shape. If you’ve seen Thybulle’s Tik Tok adventures from early in the quarantine, you know that he lives in a small apartment and didn’t have the opportunity to keep up with basketball activities.

So, he turned to the only form of exercise he thought could help — even if he didn’t enjoy it.

“I don’t like running. I really don’t like it,” Thyulle said. “But through the quarantine, it was like my only choice. ... It’s obviously not basketball-type conditioning, but it kept me at a cardio fitness level to where now that we’ve come back and started, and I’ve started doing my basketball workouts, I have a really solid baseline to build off. In a matter of two weeks, I feel like I’ve gotten back into really good shape and I think it’s going to be easier to build on after this.”

Thybulle has been given a bunch of tough assignments this season. While he’s looked like a rookie at times, when he’s kept his fouls down and his three-point percentage up, you see a player that should be able to help come the postseason.

And in a year where nobody knows what the NBA playoffs will be like, it could be to the rookie’s advantage during his first postseason run.

“I think what I’ve heard about the playoffs is a little different than what the playoffs are going to look like this year,” Thybulle said. “Obviously, I’ve heard amazing things. Especially playing in Philly, I’ve heard so many great things about having our fans behind us.

"We’re finding ourselves in a situation where that’s not going to be the case, so I think it’s going to be new for everyone, even vets who have been part of the playoffs, trying to get a feel for what this is going to be like. But I’m open to the challenge and I’m excited for what’s in store.”

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