Sixers' defense shouldn't fall 'off a cliff' with Joel Embiid suspended

Sixers' defense shouldn't fall 'off a cliff' with Joel Embiid suspended

It wasn’t that long ago that Brett Brown was forced to play Greg Monroe in Toronto for Game 7.

Brown was desperate to get anything out of a backup big. He used Monroe, who was picked up off the street late in the season. He used Boban Marjanovic and Amir Johnson, who were both played off the floor. Jonah Bolden was in the mix as well, but it was a tough spot for the 23-year-old rookie.

GM Elton Brand took over his post in September of last year, well after the team’s offseason moves were made. After that Game 7, he said he “wasn’t afforded that opportunity” to get the depth he would’ve liked — especially at center.

This past offseason was a clear indication that it wasn’t just talk. Brand was aggressive in stealing Al Horford away from the Celtics and signing veteran Kyle O’Quinn as an insurance policy.

Though it was more for the intention of having reinforcements to help with Embiid’s load management, the All-Star center’s two-game suspension will offer us another look at Brand’s backup plan.

“It's huge for the team to have that versatility to slide Al to a backup five,” Brand said to NBC Sports Philadelphia. “Kyle O'Quinn has played great. We're growing Jonah Bolden and even Norvel Pelle has been a surprise — he had five blocks in a quarter in preseason. 

“So having that versatility, that ability to have a backup center so if Joel is not playing or needs a break or we’re subbing him — to have some talent, it bodes well for our squad because last year we went from top two defensively to off a cliff when Joel was out.”

While Bolden and Pelle are intriguing developmental players, it’s really all about Horford and O’Quinn.

The Sixers already won their first game without Embiid in Detroit while the big man was nursing an ankle sprain. Yes, they were up big when Embiid was ejected Wednesday night, but they were able to clamp down after the Timberwolves went on a run and closed the game out.

"It's much tougher,” Horford said postgame Wednesday about playing without Embiid. “But I do believe that we rallied and we understood that they weren't going to go away. They cut it to like 14, 12, and it was one of those things where we had to tighten it back up again. Just had to make sure that we kept making plays. I'll definitely go back and look on film and see things that we could have done better, but I believe there was a sense of urgency from our group, like, 'Hey, we can't relax. We have to close this game out.'"

On most nights, Horford won’t stand out on the stat sheet. He hauled in 16 rebounds against Minnesota and put up 23 points in the win in Detroit, but that’s generally not where his presence is felt.

The same can be said for O’Quinn — although his assist numbers in the preseason were surprisingly impressive (4.2 assists in 11.8 minutes per game). He played just four minutes in the fourth quarter on opening night when both Embiid and Horford got into foul trouble. O’Quinn was able to come off the bench cold and give Brown solid minutes and help preserve a win.

While the rim protection drops off a bit, you could make the argument that the team’s pick-and-roll defense — a huge sore spot in recent years — improves with Horford because of his mobility, savvy and ability to communicate.

Even as the Sixers have posted the best defensive rating in the NBA through four games, Horford still isn’t satisfied.

"The communication was good. It's still not great, to my standards,” Horford said. “We're still getting better as far as that goes. Our defense was good, the effort was there. We got a little sloppy, fouling a lot in the third, slowing the game down. So, we need to be better with that stuff."

Monroe is now playing overseas in Germany. Marjanovic finally got into his first game with the Mavericks in a loss Friday night. Johnson is out of the league.

With all due respect to them, the Sixers are now in much better hands when Joel Embiid doesn’t play.

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There are positive signs, but still glaring issues with Sixers

There are positive signs, but still glaring issues with Sixers

After dropping their second straight game in overtime Friday night in Oklahoma City (see observations), the Sixers at times sounded like a team looking for answers.

More of that is likely struggling to answer questions coming off another brutal loss. They have an idea why they’ve lost five of their last seven after starting their season 5-0. A large part of it is a group with a bunch of new faces that are still figuring each other out. On Friday, fouls were an issue as they allowed the Thunder to attempt 41 free throws.

For a team that has championship aspirations and got off to such a hot start, this isn’t where they expected to be 12 games into the season.

“Obviously we're frustrated,” Tobias Harris said to reporters postgame. “7-5 is not where we want to be. It's early in the season and right now we're going to progress and get better and figure out ways that we can help each other and help our team and go from there. This game is over. Tomorrow, we'll watch film on it, we'll find out which ways that we can better ourselves and be ready for the next game. [We’re] 7-5 right now but ... we'll just go into the next game and be ready to get that win and go from there.”

There are reasons for optimism — with Harris being arguably the biggest.

After missing 23 straight threes and looking lost recently, Harris splashed his first trey of the game and looked like a totally different player. He finished with 21 points on 8 of 16 from the field and 3 of 4 from three. He was much more aggressive and decisive than he’d been in the previous two games.

Josh Richardson, returning to his native Oklahoma, has continued to show signs of improvement. He poured in 28 points, his highest total as a Sixer. More importantly, he’s looked much more comfortable in the offense as he figures out his role.

Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons both had their moments. Embiid had a game-high 31 points and Simmons broke out after a quiet first half to play the entire second half.

One of the team’s biggest issues is figuring out the pairing of Embiid and Al Horford. The reality is Horford has never played with a center like Embiid who demands the ball and attention offensively. It’s been an obvious adjustment for Horford, who shot just 5 of 12 Friday and has done most of his damage with Embiid off the floor.

The uncomfortable offensive fit for the entire starting five has been a big reason the Sixers have been involved in so many close games. A familiar theme emerged Friday, as the Sixers held a nine-point advantage with 7:20 to go in the game. Instead of hitting the gas and putting the Thunder away, they gave up a 12-2 run and saw their lead evaporate.

These are talented players that have won in different places. They’re still learning how to win together.

“I was just telling Al about that,” Harris said, “and really it's just I think a matter of right now we are yet to be up like eight points and push that to 15 and really push what we're doing and move forward with that, and really imposing our will and dominating. And that's something that we have to get to and that's something I think we're still learning — how we can do that and how we can make those type of runs. That's something we definitely got to get better at.”

The good news is you see the talent and recognize some of the issues.

And Brett Brown has 70 games to figure it out.

“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.”

They know the problems, now they just have to answer the questions.

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Sixers Talk podcast: What went wrong in OKC?

NBCSP/USA Today Images

Sixers Talk podcast: What went wrong in OKC?

Danny Pommells and Paul Hudrick discuss Brett Brown's decision to have Furkan Korkmaz play key minutes in overtime, using more pick-and-rolls with Joel Embiid, and the loss to the Thunder.

• Should Brown have gone to Korkmaz when Tobias Harris fouled out in overtime?

• Do the Sixers need to rework their offense?

• The starting lineup looked good at times, but what went wrong in OKC?

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