Sixers' imposing defense doesn't look afraid to cross 'the fine line'

Sixers' imposing defense doesn't look afraid to cross 'the fine line'

Tobias Harris had to cut himself off.

“We want to be one of the best — we want to be the best defensive team in the NBA,” he said. 

After the Sixers’ 107-93 win over the Celtics Wednesday night in their season opener (see observations), one can understand why Harris felt the need to amend his statement.

The Sixers held Boston to 36.7 percent shooting from the floor, which would have been Boston’s worst shooting performance of the 2018-19 season. They limited Kemba Walker, who’d scored a career-high 60 points on them last year, to 12 points on 4 for 18 shooting.

Josh Richardson slithered around, through and over screens in pursuit of Walker. Rookie Matisse Thybulle took gamble after gamble, knowing what he termed as “the fine line” between intelligent risk and overextension could lean much closer to unencumbered aggression with big men like Joel Embiid and Al Horford waiting behind him. 

“It was intimidating at first,” Thybulle said of guarding Walker, noting he’s played as the three-time All-Star before in NBA 2K.

He made the transition from video game to reality well defensively, recording two steals and two blocks in his NBA debut.

Embiid during training camp compared Thybulle to Robert Covington, a First Team All-Defensive selection in 2017-18 and a starter for the Sixers on opening night last year against Boston.

Harris went further in his praise of Thybulle’s defense. 

“I have not seen a rookie come in with his defensive skills,” he said. “The only guy I would say is like Kawhi [Leonard] as a rookie — everybody knew he was a top defender.”

In Richardson, Horford and Thybulle, the Sixers have added three strong defensive players. And, for all his offensive value, they’ve subtracted a player opponents would often pick on in JJ Redick. 

Unlike last season, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward didn’t have a clear matchup to post up or isolate. Boston looked for advantages where they might reasonably exist, targeting Horford against perimeter players and putting pressure on Furkan Korkmaz, but it didn’t have much success. Just about everything the Celtics did on offense was effortful.

“We just tried to make it tough on them, every trip down,” Ben Simmons said. “They have a lot of talented guys, but we just tried to make sure they had tough shots. I think everybody did a solid job of that. Matisse made a lot of great plays on Kemba and he was great out there for his first game.”

The Sixers’ defensive performance was not flawless. They committed 34 fouls, more than in any regular-season game last year. Thybulle had five, including one in the second quarter when Walker got a step ahead of him and leaned back to create contact, finishing with an and-one. 

Those blemishes didn’t seem to bother Brett Brown.

“I’d rather water something down than demand it and keep harping on it,” he said. “If my problem is we’re playing that hard and we’re fouling too much, then I’ll take that on opening night. Inevitably, you can’t just whack people, stop the clock and we’ll send them to the line, and we did that way too much. I thought our feet were good, I thought our hands were poor, and it’s a good problem, I think, to have.”

Ime Udoka, the team’s new de facto defensive coordinator, said a month ago that he wants the Sixers to “make them feel you” and play a physical, attacking, flexible style. The variations in pick-and-roll coverage, occasional full-court pressure and different matchup possibilities might look complicated on the surface. At their core, though, those strategies all intend to dictate the way the game is played. 

Thybulle is still in the early stages of figuring out the NBA, but he has an intuitive understanding of that approach.

“Our goal going into the second half was just to impose our will,” he said, “and with our size and speed, athleticism, strength and everything, that was our goal — and we came out and did it.”

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How Sixers will ramp up Ben Simmons, other key players for NBA restart

How Sixers will ramp up Ben Simmons, other key players for NBA restart

The Sixers have transitioned into the next phase of their stay at Disney World.

After an initial mandatory quarantine period, players have been cleared to leave their rooms. The team’s practice Saturday afternoon was its first since March 10. Back then, reporters stood behind a table at the team’s practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, and spoke to players from a distance. Saturday, the dialogue was through Zoom.

There are a lot of new protocols for everyone to get used to, but Brett Brown was glad to have his team together again.

“To see our team and everybody’s got their sort of elbow bumps going down the aisle of the bus, and to see the team again under one bus roof, it’s fantastic,” he said. 

Brown is adapting to the new conditions and still determining exactly how he’ll coach his team during this period. He did, however, have a firm answer on how often he plans to play Ben Simmons as the Sixers ramp back up. Simmons had missed the team’s final eight games before the season was suspended with a nerve impingement in his lower back, but he said on July 2 that he’s feeling healthy and has added muscle

I think in general when you look at the scrimmage situations, you’re going to see something that’s quite frugal,” Brown said. “I believe when it gets into the regular-season games, you’re going to see normal numbers that I’ve played him. And so that answer isn’t delivered because of anything to do with health. It’s delivered just because I think that’s the way that I want to do it, and the way that I will do it with (Joel Embiid) and Tobias (Harris), as examples, because of their stature more than anything to do with health.

Embiid had been sidelined for five games in late February and early March with a left shoulder sprain. Harris has more minutes than any NBA player this season and played through a right knee issue earlier in the year.

The Sixers are set to have scrimmages on July 24, July 26 and July 28, and to resume play on Aug. 1 against the Indiana Pacers. 

Nobody in the NBA has experienced anything like this situation before, which Brown acknowledged. He’s in a position of attempting to find and capitalize on opportunities for normalcy while also making the best of the circumstances, with many restrictions in place. 

“This thing is fluid,” Brown said, “but I believe it will be normal in relation to no mask and me being able to look at Ben and Jo and talk to them (at practice),” Brown said. “Personally, I feel like it’s not normal. You’re going to have to feel different things through of how you deliver a message and how you coach a team again, and I’m excited to be able to do that.”

‘An open mind’ about concerns 

Harris’ outlook is an important one for the Sixers. He’s clearly viewed as a leader, someone his teammates respect and have talked to often while play has been suspended.  

In his first meeting with local reporters since before the hiatus, he gave his thoughts on players who have expressed their opinions on the league resuming, ranging from disagreement to doubt to hesitation. Joel Embiid said he “hated the idea,” while Shake Milton said he doesn't think the NBA should be playing.

Just try to understand their perspective, just to hear them out with an open mind,” Harris said. “Everybody takes this in a different way. You can look at it in many different facets, with what’s going on in the world, whether coming out here is safe or not as safe for some guys. Guys leaving family, guys being free agents. So everybody has a little bit of doubt in their mind with everything. 

“Just hear them out, understand them. Try to do our best with it. So I think that’s the best thing we can do. But everybody’s going to have their own type of inner feelings about it, and that’s not to say that mine is right or theirs is right … so just hearing them out.

The Bobi and Tobi Show? 

As the Sixers acclimate to the Disney environment, Harris has already received a visit from a familiar face. He had a fun exchange Friday with Boban Marjanovic, and there might be more “Bobi and Tobi” antics to come.

“Obviously it’s always good to be around Bobi and see him — as you saw yesterday, him in front of my hotel room,” Harris said. “It’s always light-hearted, it’s a fun thing. I definitely look forward to catching up with him while I’m out here. There’s some things in the works.”

At some point, perhaps a month or two down the line, this new routine might become comfortable for Harris and the Sixers. But it understandably sounds like that’s going to take a while. 

"Obviously there’s so much involved in it, from food to sleep to making sure we’re stretching right,” Glenn Robinson III said. “It kind of feels like a summer camp with everything going on. It’s easy to get distracted or caught up in everything, but our eyes are just on practice, getting better and just making sure that we’re good, as far as the team.”

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Tobias Harris explains how Sixers addressed chemistry issues during hiatus

Tobias Harris explains how Sixers addressed chemistry issues during hiatus

The Sixers participated in training camp, five preseason games and 65 regular-season games. There were plenty of road trips and practices in between. Suffice it to say they spent a lot of time together.

Then suddenly on March 11, the NBA season was suspended amid the coronavirus pandemic. The players went their separate ways and were forced to socially distance like the rest of us.

Over the past four months, they’ve all stayed in communication, thanks in large part to Tobias Harris. Harris had emerged as a leader even before the season started and proved to be the team’s most reliable player as the only one to suit up for all 65 games.

Ahead of the Sixers’ first practice in the Disney World bubble Saturday afternoon, Harris talked about why it was imperative to keep in touch.

I think it’s always important to make sure guys mentally are in the right space,” Harris said in a video conference call with reporters. “Just being a teammate or brother. We were around each other for so long, so when we go into quarantine with the pandemic we have, I just thought it was really important to keep us in the loop with one another with what we’re doing, whether that be Zoom calls, checking in through group texts — we’ve got a group text on Instagram. 

“I also looked at it like, if we’re being honest, we didn’t have the best chemistry through the year with everything going on. So just to use the time to kind of build on that chemistry and help us grow a little bit together through the whole pandemic.

Harris has been candid about the team lacking chemistry. That’s part of the reason the Sixers, who had lofty expectations going into the season, sit at 39-26 and are currently the East’s sixth seed.

That lack of cohesiveness can be attributed in part to the team’s new-look starting five playing just 19 games together and the fact that the team in general has seen a lot of turnover over the past two seasons.

Even Harris himself has only been with the team since just before last year’s trade deadline. Part of the reason GM Elton Brand looked to re-sign Harris is he saw the nine-year veteran as a leader and player that would do well representing the franchise.

From a basketball perspective, Brand signed Harris to provide complementary scoring to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. While Harris hasn’t quite lived up to near-max status, he’s proven to be a reliable player and locker room voice. 

The 27-year-old’s efforts to keep the lines of communicatin open have him feeling like the team has bonded through the experience. The human element is something we lose sight of when discussing grown men being paid a lot of money to play a sport.

But consider that these players were dealing with a global pandemic and the racial inequality issues gripping the country. Now, they’ve been thrust into a less-than-ideal situation as they look to gel over the course of the next few weeks and gear up for a playoff run.

In an unprecedented and tumultuous time, they’ve had each other to lean on.

And, as most of his teammates will tell you, Harris was at the forefront of that.

I feel as a player and as one of the leaders on the team, we definitely have grown throughout the pandemic,” Harris said. “It was a time for us to really communicate with one another, get to know each other a little bit more than we may have known (each other) before. So I definitely think it’s a positive.

"I think just having constant communication and being able to reach other was key. Obviously we had a bunch of Zoom meeting calls and whatnot. We’ve really taken this time to try to keep ourselves and our mindset going, and to be ready. And here we are. So hopefully it pays off and works.

How will that translate to the court?

“I think we’ll see how it translates,” Harris said. “At the same time, it’s no mystery that the teams with the best chemistry usually end up being the teams that are some of the toughest to beat. That’s not rocket science.”

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