The pick-and-roll is one of the simplest plays in basketball.
Generally, a big man will set a screen for the ball handler. The big will roll to the basket and the ball handler will assess their options.
As simplistic as it may be, it’s incredibly hard to guard — as the Sixers have demonstrated over the last couple of seasons. It also helps when both players running it are exceptionally skilled.
Perhaps it’s about time the Sixers flip the script and force other teams to guard them in that action.
In a 106-104 loss to the Jazz in Utah Wednesday night (see observations), they were victimized yet again by it. Donovan Mitchell hit his first four shots with a couple coming out of it. Mike Conley, who killed the Sixers last year while with the Grizzlies, also gave them some problems. Same goes for Bojan Bogdanovic, another player that’s given them fits in the past.
Raul Neto, who was thrust into action when Ben Simmons had to leave the game with a shoulder injury, acquitted himself well against his former team. He did help mitigate a little of the damage Mitchell and the Jazz were doing, but by the time the Sixers tightened things up, it was too little too late.
"I think it's all details,” Neto said to reporters postgame. “Some mistakes on our coverage with our defense. They're a great team — they've got great shooters and I think little mistakes, you pay for them. It's the beginning of the season — we've gotta get better, gotta get our communication on a better level. I think that's going to be huge for us."
To be fair, the Sixers are defending the pick-and-roll much better than they have in seasons past.
Part of that is new assistant coach Ime Udoka, who came over from the Spurs this offseason. Udoka serves as Brett Brown’s “defensive coordinator.” The team appears more willing to switch up coverages and make in-game adjustments so far this season.
The other part is personnel. Replacing JJ Redick with Josh Richardson defensively is a massive upgrade. Richardson is long, athletic and excels at “rearview” contests.
Richardson felt that the Sixers could’ve been a little more aggressive and put the Jazz’s skilled players in tougher situations.
“I think we gotta guard a couple actions better,” Richardson said. “I think we let them play too comfortable at the top of the key, entering the ball in the offense, I think that hurt us pretty bad. Just because they got a lot of tall guys that can play out of pin downs and that can play make and score. So I think we got to make a play a little bit further up.”
Richardson had his best game as a Sixer. Though his defensive presence has been felt throughout his first six games, Wednesday night was the first true glimpse of what he can do offensively, as he finished with 24 points (8 of 13) and four assists.
The same cannot be said for Tobias Harris and Al Horford. Both players were excellent in Joel Embiid’s absence over the last two games. On Wednesday, they struggled from the field, going a combined 7 of 25.
With Horford (seven points, 3 of 14), he was getting good looks and it appeared to just be one of those nights.
For Harris (16 points, 4 of 11), perhaps it’s time for Brown to start adjusting his offense to fit the $180-million man’s skill set. Harris was excellent in the pick-and-roll during his time with Clippers, where he was a borderline All-Star last season.
Brown has never run much pick-and-roll during his time with the Sixers. Again, a large part of that is personnel driven. Not only has Brown not had the players to optimally execute it, but he also has a center in Embiid that’s admitted that he doesn’t love rolling.
Embiid is also a dominant force and the main reason the Sixers lead the league in post ups per game. They're dead last in the percentage of pick-and-rolls they run. Those numbers shouldn't completely flip, but a better balance might do some good.
The Sixers need the best out of both Harris and Embiid if they’re going to get to where they want to go. You saw in the second half Wednesday that the combination of these players can produce good looks. Yes, the post is still where Embiid needs to/will do the bulk of his damage, but you could tell in the second half he was laboring after missing two games.
The pick-and-roll could allow him to maybe get better looks around the basket, perhaps even allowing him to post up after smaller players switch onto him.
“You got to give them credit — they got the shots they wanted,” Harris said of the Jazz. “They played at a really good pace that kind of over the course of the game was just a little bit too much for us. But I will say that and their ability to limit us to taking some tough shots. We still put ourselves in position to be able to win the game, came up short. So I just think a lot of things we can learn from this game moving forward and you just got to chalk it up and get ready for the next.”
Maybe it’s time for Brown to switch things up and start putting the opposition in a similar bind.
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