The day started with the Sixers losing the coach in charge of their defense.
It ended with the team’s much-maligned pick-and-roll defense shining in a 123-110 win over the Nets at the Wells Fargo Center Thursday (see observations).
Assistant coach Billy Lange, who accepted the head coaching job at Saint Joseph’s, coached his final game with the Sixers. For Lange, who took defensive responsibilities over from the departed Lloyd Pierce this season, it was a nice swan song.
Brooklyn has two guards in D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie that punish teams in the pick-and-roll. Through three matchups this season, that guard duo averaged a combined 51 points while both shooting over 55 percent from the field. On Thursday, the two combined for just 26 points and shot 10 of 28.
After two disappointing losses in Atlanta and Orlando, Brett Brown said pregame that his team was still searching for an identity. Thursday’s performance seemed like a step in the right direction.
“We talked candidly, like who are we? And how do I make sure I help us be what you guys want to be?” Brown said. “We all understand what our mission is and we do not have the history, [like] the Warriors and I mean like the Celtics as well. There’s a history there that maybe they can click their heels and all of a sudden, ‘Oh, it’s playoffs,’ and take off. They have the ability to do that. I just feel like we need to experience more time together playing well and understand what playing well looks like.”
The Sixers’ losses to the Hawks and Magic were ugly. In both cases, it looked like the team thought it could just stroll in and roll both teams. The Sixers obviously underestimated a hungry young Atlanta team and an Orlando team fighting for its playoff life.
It didn’t look like they showed up for either matchup, with the defensive end exploiting a lack of effort.
That wasn’t the case Thursday. The Nets have given the Sixers fits all season, but this was a sound performance by the home team. The Sixers led wire to wire.
Another thing to keep in perspective is this was just the 10th game for the Sixers’ new starting five playing together. It boasts an 8-2 mark and it's just scratching the surface of what it can be.
“We’re fine,” Embiid said. “Obviously there’s still a lot to learn with all of us, but we’re fine. We’re playing better. In the last few games, obviously we didn’t play well, mainly because of the defensive end, but it’s fine. When we move the ball and we put the ball in the right [people's hands], I think it’s fine.”
Embiid, who was so upset after the loss to the Magic that he didn't speak to reporters, continues to be the “crown jewel” on offense. He poured in 39 points on 12 of 20 shooting and also had 13 rebounds, six assists, three steals and a block. It was similar to the All-Star center’s game in Milwaukee.
Per Basketball-Reference, only three players have put up at least 39 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, three steals and one block in a game twice in a season: Embiid, David Robinson and some guy named Michael Jordan.
But on the defensive end is where Embiid’s efforts shined the most. Since he entered the league, his goal has always been to win the Defensive Player of the Year. Before this season started, he said he wanted to win MVP.
He likely won’t win either, but in a game that was a possible playoff preview Thursday, he showed that he has his eyes on a bigger award.
“I’m excited,” Embiid said. “Honestly, I don’t care who we play. I’m excited. It’s going to be my second postseason. Last year I had the mask and I wasn’t feeling well, I was out of shape, but this playoffs I’m coming in better shape and I don’t have the mask to hate, so it’s definitely going to be a different story.”
It’s safe to say the Sixers’ identity — especially on defense — begins and ends with Embiid.
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