We don’t need to strain for creative nicknames, like “the Phantastic 5.”
The Sixers’ new starting lineup is, to put it simply, a very good group of five basketball players, albeit one figuring out how to play with each other.
Here are five things we’ve learned about the new starting unit:
Harris fits well into the offense
In his first four games with the Sixers, Tobias Harris has averaged 17.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game — not a bad start.
He’s fit naturally into the Sixers’ offense. Brett Brown has mostly plugged Harris into actions the Sixers already have installed, and Harris has generally thrived in those settings. The play below is a familiar “screen the screener” action.
Out of a Horns set — two big men at the elbows, two wings in the corners — Harris sets a ball screen for Ben Simmons, then flares off a screen from Joel Embiid. He gets a mismatch on Nikola Jokic and dips in for a soft floater.
Though Harris is still learning his teammates’ tendencies, he hasn’t seemed too uncomfortable in unstructured situations, either when plays break down or in transition. He ran a nice pick-and-pop with Embiid early in the shot clock vs. the Lakers.
There is one action the Sixers have recently introduced, a modified “Spain pick-and-roll.”
Jimmy Butler loops up to the top of the key. Off the ball, Joel Embiid sets a back screen for JJ Redick at the foul line, and Redick curls to the rim. Embiid then comes up to give Butler a ball screen, with Redick right behind him. Redick will typically give Embiid a back screen before shooting up to the top of the key — this is the traditional Spain pick-and-roll, that ball screen immediately followed by a back screen.
In the example above, Redick doesn’t make any contact with Embiid’s man, Al Horford, who decides to give a hard hedge on the pick-and-roll between Butler and Embiid. Still, the Celtics’ defense is slightly overbalanced toward Butler and Embiid. Harris, stationed in the weak side corner, takes advantage by driving baseline on Marcus Morris and drawing a foul.
The defense is a work in progress
The Sixers’ new starting five is a long, versatile, switchable defensive unit. It is, however, still a work in progress.
In their first game together, the Sixers had some miscommunication on a couple of pick-and-rolls, including the one below. Harris and Simmons both take Will Barton, leaving Mason Plumlee open on the roll.
A poor defensive first quarter for the Sixers against the Lakers ended fittingly, with nobody picking up Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Simmons is shifting his approach
While the first legitimate three-point attempt of his career Sunday understandably got the most attention (see story), Simmons appears more willing overall to take the open jumpers presented to him.
With LeBron James deep in the paint, he stepped into a jumper from the elbow early against the Lakers.
Simmons is now 14 for 70 (20 percent) this season on shots from 10 feet and out. It’ll be interesting to track whether, even as the playoffs approach, he continues to take shots that have been highly inefficient for him.
The staples still work
Brown has had a few shootarounds and just a single practice to incorporate new actions, so he’s mainly had to rely on old favorites.
“12,” the multi-layered action that starts with Redick sprinting up from the baseline, often to give Simmons a ball screen, is still very difficult to guard because of Redick’s threat as a shooter. Plumlee and Malik Beasley botch their coverage on this play and, after a clever hesitation, Simmons attacks the open lane.
“Elbow,” the Embiid-Redick two-man game, is never leaving the Sixers’ offense as long as those two are still around.
The Celtics did a good job denying Embiid the ball at the end of the first quarter, but the Sixers adjusted well. With Mike Scott double-teamed, Embiid flashed to the block and found T.J. McConnell on the opposite side for a lay-up.
Late-game execution will take time
Boston, as has so often been the case, executed better than the Sixers when it mattered Tuesday night.
The Sixers weren’t quite sharp enough on their late, game-tying attempt off a sideline out of bounds play.
Butler screens at the top of the key for Redick, who sprints toward Harris, the inbounder. The idea is to make an entry pass to Embiid and play a Redick-Embiid two-man game. But Embiid fumbles the pass, which throws off the timing of the play. Instead of hand it off to Redick, Embiid kicks the ball out to Harris and runs out to set a ball screen, trying to create a sliver of space.
Embiid rebounds Harris' miss and puts it back in, despite the Sixers being out of timeouts and needing a three to tie. Afterwards, he admitted he wasn’t aware the Sixers had no timeouts left and called himself “an idiot” for not kicking the ball out.
These five pieces have only been together for four games — not everything is going to click automatically late in games. Things just need to be more precise come the playoffs.
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