Sixers must clean up problems with pick-and-roll defense before playoffs

Sixers must clean up problems with pick-and-roll defense before playoffs

The Sixers need to clean up their pick-and-roll defense, and with eight games to go before the playoffs, they don’t have a ton of time to do it. 

Communication is still an understandable issue on occasion for “Sixers 3.0,” and it’s most noticeable in pick-and-roll coverage. Tobias Harris and James Ennis successfully execute a switch on the pick-and-roll below between Taurean Prince and Dewayne Dedmon. But when Prince changes direction, their switch back is not nearly sharp enough, resulting in a dunk for Dedmon.

JJ Redick looks like he’s going to fight through John Collins’ screen and stick with Trae Young on this play, but he makes a late decision to switch onto the rolling Collins. Jimmy Butler doesn’t appear to get the message in time.

The most concerning, frequent problem is the Sixers switching far more often than they’d prefer because the ball handler’s man gets caught on top of, behind, or under the screen.

That leaves the Sixers with matchups like Joel Embiid on Evan Fournier. 

And Boban Marjanovic on D.J. Augustin.

These sort of switches tend to lead to good looks, even when offenses don’t immediately go at the original mismatch. Notice how Marjanovic finishes this play out behind the three-point line on the right side of the floor, leaving no help at the rim after Fournier beats Mike Scott on the drive.

The above examples can’t be blamed on scheme — they’re all about the ball handler’s defender initially getting beat and putting the Sixers in a position where they have no choice but to switch. 

Marjanovic, though an efficient offensive player and solid rim protector in certain situations, has been picked on often in pick-and-roll situations.

He drops back to help Shake Milton on this play, blocking Augustin’s path to the rim. Marjanovic then winds up in no man’s land, hanging around in the paint. With everyone switching and scrambling around, Marjanovic eventually realizes Terrence Ross is open behind the arc. He asks Milton to jump out to Ross and let him switch back onto Nikola Vucevic far too late. 

In Atlanta, Marjanovic again made a solid play on the initial action to cover for his teammates. Scott and T.J. McConnell both dart toward the middle on Young’s pick-and-roll with Collins, which compels Marjanovic to step back and stop Young from finding Collins on the roll. Unfortunately, Dedmon is trailing the play, and the thought of the biggest player in the NBA sprinting out from the lane to contest his shot is just not realistic. 

Though Marjanovic may be especially slow-footed, the fundamental problem of big men getting pulled away from the rim because of a perimeter player’s subpar defense isn’t exclusive to him. It’s difficult to imagine the Sixers making a run to the NBA Finals without a collective improvement on that simple, central assignment of staying with your man.

They’ve also struggled with slightly more complex actions, like the “Spain pick-and-roll” Orlando used several times. Harris switches onto Fournier after Butler falls a step behind, which isn’t an issue on the surface — Harris can hang with Fournier much better than someone like Marjanovic or Embiid. But the Magic then have Aaron Gordon set a back screen and pop out behind the arc. Jonah Bolden picks up the rolling Vucevic, but nobody takes Gordon.

The Sixers’ drop coverage has been burned plenty this season by guards like D’Angelo Russell and Collin Sexton knocking down a bunch of long two-point shots. Still, the big man dropping off and giving the ball handler’s defender time to recover and stick with his man is preferable to matchups like Augustin vs. Marjanovic. You can live with a guard attempting a long two or a big man taking a contested three, as Vucevic does here.

What you can’t live with is the ball handler’s man getting beat time after time, forcing constant switching and allowing the defense to systematically attack your weaknesses.

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Sixers injury update: Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Tobias Harris available vs. Raptors

Sixers injury update: Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Tobias Harris available vs. Raptors

Joel Embiid is available for the Sixers’ game Wednesday night vs. the Raptors after missing Tuesday’s loss to the Suns with a left ankle injury. 

The three-time All-Star sustained the injury in the first quarter of the Sixers' game Sunday against the Trail Blazers. He appeared to grimace after his left foot landed awkwardly on the basket stanchion (see video above). 

Al Horford and Tobias Harris will also return after sitting out Tuesday's game with left knee soreness and right ankle soreness, respectively. Josh Richardson, who rested against Phoenix, is available as well. 

On Tuesday, Brett Brown said the players out vs. the Suns could've played in a postseason game, and the news that they're available for the team's penultimate seeding game clearly indicates that is indeed the case. The Sixers head into their game vs. the Raptors at 43-29, a game behind the No. 5 seed Pacers in the Eastern Conference. They're likely to face the No. 3 seed Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, and a Pacers win vs. the Rockets this afternoon and/or Sixers loss to Toronto would finalize that matchup. 

Alec Burks is out for the game against Toronto with left foot soreness, an injury that The Inquirer's Keith Pompey reports is not a "long-term concern." He's performed well at Disney World, averaging 14.3 points and shooting 57.1 percent over the Sixers' six games, and looks primed to play a key role in the playoffs as the Sixers forge ahead with Ben Simmons sidelined by a left knee injury. Simmons had successful surgery to remove a loose body from his knee on Monday.

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How to watch Sixers vs. Raptors: Storylines, live stream, game time and more

How to watch Sixers vs. Raptors: Storylines, live stream, game time and more

Updated: 2:14 p.m. 

The Sixers on Tuesday lost to the only team without a defeat in the NBA's "bubble," falling to the Suns. Wednesday, they'll play the team with the second-best record at Disney World. The Toronto Raptors are 5-1 in Orlando and 51-19 overall.

Here are the essentials:

When: 6:30 p.m. with Sixers Pregame Live at 6
Where: The Field House at The Wide World of Sports Complex 
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia Plus
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch: 

Factors behind the rest 

Before the Sixers’ loss Tuesday, Brett Brown was asked about the team not having any of its opening night starting lineup available. Josh Richardson rested, while Tobias Harris (right ankle soreness), Al Horford (left knee soreness) and Joel Embiid (left ankle injury) were listed as out with injuries. We won’t see Ben Simmons for some time after he had surgery on his left knee. 

Initially, Brown didn’t have much to add.

“I’m sure they could play (if it was a playoff game), but it isn’t,” he said.

He then expanded on the thinking behind so many of the team’s top players being out.

“If you went to any coach in the NBA, you’re going to get that,” he said. “What ends up happening, also, is it gets doubled down on with the medical people and it ends up a cumulative decision that’s collaborated on with the players. Living in this world that we’re in down here I don’t think changes — we could be in Philadelphia, I bet we would’ve done the same thing. 

“But I feel like, when you sort of feel the physical side of our team and some of the subtle injuries, the fact that you don’t have the depth that you used to with Ben, all those things added up have influenced this decision.”

For the team’s penultimate seeding game, the Sixers will be near full strength. Simmons remains out, of course, and Alec Burks is sidelined with left foot soreness, but everyone else who missed Tuesday's game is available.

2nd-round preview?

Toronto is locked into the No. 2 seed, while the Sixers are a game behind the No. 5 Pacers. According to Basketball Reference, there’s a 94.8 percent chance the Sixers finish as the No. 6 seed. It’s possible, therefore, that the Sixers could play the Raptors in the second round in consecutive years.

The Raptors were the first team to travel to Florida and have wins there over the Lakers, Heat and Bucks. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet are not on the injury report after missing Monday’s win over Milwaukee, while Serge Ibaka (right knee contusion) and OG Anunoby (right knee soreness) are questionable, but Toronto has no reason to push any key players. Pascal Siakam’s 28 minutes were the most of any Raptors starter vs. the Bucks. 

The Sixers can even the regular-season series against Toronto at 2-2 with a win. Notable moments against the Raptors this season include Embiid being held scoreless on Nov. 25 and Matisse Thybulle putting up a career-high 20 points on Dec. 8 in a game the Sixers kept interesting until the end with a flurry of late turnovers. 

More playoff prep for Thybulle 

Time is running out, but Thybulle should have another chance here to fine-tune his defense, which Brown and the Sixers expect to count on, before the postseason.

He was frustrated by fouls Tuesday, picking up a technical and accruing five fouls by early in the third quarter. Brown thought there were lessons to take away for the rookie about how to play in those situations. 

“I think one of the areas that he can learn from the most is how do you play with five fouls,” Brown said. “I thought that he was so trying to do the right thing and trying not to foul out that (Devin) Booker could kind of score easily. And I get why he would think that. But when we go into the next world of the playoffs, when I look at who are my best defensive wings now that you don’t have Ben, Matisse is clearly amongst that. I think Glenn Robinson’s got a shot at being in that group. I know J-Rich is a part of that group. 

“You start playing that game in the event that foul trouble happens, how can you play with foul trouble? Because sometimes you’re just going to have to. And I thought that in general, he was pretty good. I thought that specific thing that I’m talking about, that’s a transferrable lesson, especially as the playoffs become closer.”

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