The Sixers’ starting five has been dominant — when it’s actually played together.
Through 16 games, the unit of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford has gotten through just five contests together. That five-man lineup has by far the highest net rating in the NBA at 29.4 (minimum 80 minutes played together). Of course Saturday night’s blowout, in which the Sixers’ starters outscored the Heat’s 90-33, helped that cause.
The lack of time together has been frustrating for them in terms of developing chemistry offensively, but as that win showed, they may be turning a corner.
I thought all-around we were hitting on all cylinders — shots going in, being able to impose our will defensively, being able to get a lot of good plays,” Harris said postgame Saturday. “Obviously, it's early but we're figuring it out. Tonight was a good night of where I thought we really imposed our will on them all night.
When GM Elton Brand assembled this team, it was clear defense was the focus. Brett Brown has reiterated that.
His players have been on the same page so far. The starters’ 88.8 defensive rating is also a league-best mark.
I believe it starts with me and Jo and Al and Josh and Tobias on the floor,” Simmons said. “When we're all locked in defensively, our offense is just easy. Everything flows and we find each other and play with a good pace.
Of course a huge part of defense is communication. Horford has mentioned communication in one form or another in pretty much every media availability he’s had since he arrived — especially on that end of the floor.
There’s a mutual respect among the Sixers where they talk openly. Harris has said “transparency” as a team was a focus this offseason. Even the newcomers in Horford and Richardson are feeling that sentiment.
I think I saw our chemistry get better, man,” Richardson said. “For instance, me and Tobias had a little back and forth — not bad — but it was one of those things where I was like screaming at him for the ball to get it to a mismatch, but he didn't understand it, and then we explained it, but it didn't escalate. We fist bumped and kept it going. And I saw a few other instances like that. And I think when you can go at your teammates like that and come out of there positively, I think that's a good step for us.
Make no mistake, no matter what move the Sixers make and how those players contribute, it all starts with Simmons and Embiid.
Simmons has been on another level over the last few games — especially on defense. The Sixers inexplicably struggled to contain the Knicks’ guards Wednesday and found themselves down 17 in the third quarter. Simmons then took over the game on both ends, pushing the ball at a breakneck pace.
He repeated that effort against the Spurs Friday and yet again with Jimmy Butler and the Heat.
I just felt like it all started with Ben for us,” Horford said postgame Friday. “When he plays with that type of pace and that sense of urgency, it just opens everything up for all of us and I felt like his pressure and him putting pressure on the rim and attacking and looking ahead and making the right decisions — I think that it kind of got us in good positions early.
As for Embiid, the last couple games represent a major improvement in the way he’s handled double teams. He’s made quick decisions and found his teammates which has led to significantly better ball movement.
It didn’t seem like a coincidence that Saturday was the best game the trio of Harris, Horford and Richardson have had scoring wise.
It sure helps,” Brown said. “I mean, it all fits, it ends up fitting. And as we've talked, ad nauseum about, the offense is going to take some time. I do agree with you that Al and Tobias lately have found their rhythm. I thought that they were really good in scoring out of our structure. We made threes tonight. We made them at high percentage. We had a high assists game. We shared the ball. There were many, many good things that came out of the game tonight offensively and I've just said what I said why I'm most excited, is we played defense.
There are still things that need to be worked out, but luckily for the Sixers, there’s plenty of time to do so.
We're still learning how to play with each other,” Joel Embiid said postgame Friday. “We got a long way to go, but every day we're making a step in the right direction and that's good to see. We're still learning. I'm still learning. I'm still getting adjusted, but we're only going to get better.
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