On paper, the Sixers’ flurry of moves before the trade deadline vaulted the team into championship conversations.
In person, the new version of the Sixers won its first game, beating the Nuggets on Friday night, 117-110 (see observations). And though the team’s abundance of offensive weapons will likely get the most attention, that’s not what impressed head coach Brett Brown the most.
“The last six minutes defensively stood out,” Brown said. “You could feel it, you could see it, that our guys went to a different place, particularly Ben [Simmons] and Joel [Embiid] in pick-and-roll defense in terms of intensity and execution with some of the schemes we were trying to do. I thought as a whole our starting five during the run in the last five to six minutes, they were excellent defensively.”
General manager Elton Brand added five players to the Sixers’ roster Wednesday and Thursday — Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott, James Ennis and Jonathon Simmons. It wouldn’t be fair to classify any one of them as a below-average defender.
Instead of having to try to avoid mismatches with subpar defenders like Landry Shamet and Mike Muscala, Brown can now have faith in a solid, veteran wing like Ennis and a strong, switchable defender in Harris who also happens to average over 20 points per game.
“Just all over the place, you can see why people think he’s an All-Star,” Brown said of Harris. “And I think that his personality and his basketball intellect stands out. I thought he had some tough defensive plays down the stretch. He might not look like Jimmy [Butler] looks but gosh, he had some tough plays down the stretch.”
Harris, who had 14 points, eight rebounds and three assists in his Sixers debut, should fit in well on a defensive unit that now has the personnel to adapt to a variety of lineups. For instance, 7-foot-3 Boban Marjanovic is a good option against less agile centers like Denver’s Nikola Jokic, while Jonah Bolden could fill in as Embiid’s backup against a less favorable matchup for Marjanovic.
“A lot of potential,” Harris said. “I think we're a team that's very versatile on the defensive end — different size, different strengths. We have one of the best at-the-rim players in the league — two of the best with Joel and Boban. It's going to be a really good defensive team. I think tonight we were really locked in and solid. We were really good. Just us getting that going for us is going to be really big. Using that going forward is going to have to be our key.”
Outside of their defensive impact, the way Harris, Marjanovic, Scott and Ennis took care of the ball Friday night was remarkable. In 76 combined minutes, those four turned it over once. And that collective performance isn’t a complete fluke. Harris, Scott and Ennis all have turnover percentages under 9.0 this season.
On a team 27th in the NBA with 15.7 turnovers per game, it’s a welcome quality that addresses one of the Sixers’ weaknesses, just like their pre-deadline lack of players who could play decent defense against multiple positions.
The offense could very well take some time for the Sixers to figure out. And easy baskets might not present themselves often in a postseason series against the Celtics, Bucks or Raptors. But the Sixers’ defense should now be good enough that they have a chance against any team.
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