76ers

Tobias Harris determined not to be weak link in Sixers' defense

Tobias Harris determined not to be weak link in Sixers' defense

It appears it will be tough to score against the 2019-20 Sixers.

They’re “huge,” as Brett Brown said Wednesday at a luncheon with members of the media, and they’re full of players ranging from above average to elite defensively. But, if you want to score on a starting five that includes former All-Defensive Team selections Joel Embiid and Al Horford in the frontcourt, a fluid, rangy athlete in Josh Richardson and a speedy, versatile 6-foot-10 player with a knack for swatting jump shots in Ben Simmons, there’s one place you would likely look. Brown understands that, and so does Tobias Harris.

“I’m not sure who or where the liability exists,” Brown said. “Even Tobias promises me, ‘I will be better defensively.’ I say I hear you loudly and I look forward to seeing it. I think any time you have an athlete with character, which he is, he can play defense. And I feel like getting him in late and understanding all our words and schemes, by any stretch is difficult.”

It’s true that Harris, acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers in February, had to learn the Sixers’ defense on the job. Harris wasn’t often a glaring weak spot, but he wasn’t very good defensively. He had a 110.3 defensive rating and minus-0.7 defensive box plus-minus in 27 regular-season games with the Sixers. 

One of the luxuries of having players like Richardson, Simmons and Horford who can guard multiple positions well is that it should often be possible — if it’s necessary — to occasionally “hide” Harris on defense.

As an example, say the Sixers don’t like the matchup of Harris vs. the Bucks’ Khris Middleton. The Sixers could put Richardson on Eric Bledsoe, Simmons on Middleton, Embiid on Giannis Antetokounmpo — something they did in the teams’ final two matchups of last season — and Horford on Brook Lopez, which would leave Harris with Wesley Matthews. The Sixers could also try sliding Harris on to the Nets’ Rodions Kurucs instead of Caris LeVert, or sticking him on Marcus Smart instead of Jayson Tatum.

Their preference, however, would generally be having faith in Harris to guard opposing small forwards. Harris was keen to let Brown know he can have confidence in him to capably do that job. 

It's funny, because he goes out of his way to tell me this, that 'I'm good to go. I can't wait to play defense for us this year.' He's too prideful. He starts looking around, and he's not going to be the weak link. He will not. … It will be a little bit unique chasing, instead of playing bully ball and behind people's backs, this is true. Defending more the ball carrier in pick-and-rolls as opposed to the screener. This is true. But I am excited. I'm more excited because he's so excited. I think he's ready for the challenge. 

Harris’ attitude alone won’t turn him into a tremendous defensive player. He’ll again have to digest changes in defensive principles and philosophies, this time from new assistant coach Ime Udoka (see story). He’ll need to adjust to new teammates again, too, figuring out nuances like what Horford prefers to do in certain pick-and-roll coverages and when Richardson tends to gamble for steals.

For Harris, however, the most important thing will likely be rather simple: When isolated against a talented opposing wing this season, can he hold his own?

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2020 NBA playoffs: Looking at where Sixers sit in Eastern Conference picture

2020 NBA playoffs: Looking at where Sixers sit in Eastern Conference picture

Though they’re calling “seeding games,” the Sixers’ primary concern in the contests leading up to the playoffs is not seeding.

“How do you go into the playoffs … how can you go into that date feeling like we’re the best we can be?” Brett Brown said on July 12. “Worrying too much about moving up because you could play this team or avoid that team, I stay away from that.” 

Through three games at Disney World, Brown wishes the Sixers were playing at a higher level. The team has gone 2-1, but that record includes a fourth quarter in which the Sixers allowed the Pacers to score 46 points, a game-saving shot from Shake Milton vs. the Spurs and a win over the 24-44 Wizards that was tight until the end. Ben Simmons exited Wednesday’s game against Washington early with a left knee injury

It’s been slower coming than I would’ve thought,” Brown said Wednesday. “I liked our practices, I thought … the preseason games you saw at times a dominant defense. We’ve started these three games, I think, very inconsistently. I think we do some good things offensively, defensively, and then you see head-scratching stuff. It hasn’t gone as quickly as I had hoped. But I see where I think it can end. 

“We’re still figuring out some things with how we’re playing the team and Shake (Milton) coming in and so on. But I think, for the most part, we’re trending in the right direction, just not as quickly as I wished.

Here's where the Sixers sit in the Eastern Conference: 

3. Boston Celtics 45-23 GB: 9 
4. Miami Heat 43-25 GB: 11
5. Indiana Pacers 42-26 GB: 12
6. Sixers 41-27 GB: 13 

Boston technically still has a chance to surpass the Raptors for the No. 2 seed and the Sixers aren’t eliminated from contention for the No. 3 seed, but both outcomes are very improbable. Kemba Walker sat out the latter half of a back-to-back Wednesday, a 149-115 Celtics win over the Nets, as the All-Star guard works through a left knee issue. After playing Toronto on Friday night, the Celtics will face Orlando, Memphis and Washington.

The current No. 4 and No. 5 seeds play each other twice in the remaining seeding games, which should be interesting. The Heat’s other opponents are the Bucks, Suns and Thunder, while the Pacers’ are the Suns, Lakers and Rockets. Before the NBA’s hiatus, Miami was 2-0 against Indiana. In case you were curious, T.J. Warren hasn’t dropped off much after his 53-point performance vs. the Sixers. He leads all scorers at Disney World with 39.7 points per game. 

Despite having the sixth-easiest strength of schedule, the Sixers don’t have great odds of rising. Basketball Reference’s Playoff Probabilities Report gives them a 72.8 percent chance at the No. 6 seed, 23.0 percent at No. 5 and just 4.1 percent at No. 4. Those probabilities are intuitive when you consider the Sixers have lost their season series vs. the Heat and Pacers. 

The Celtics are the Sixers’ most likely first-round opponent at the moment by a good margin, which would potentially leave the Sixers a path of Boston-Toronto-Milwaukee. One could make the argument that such a road is best for the Sixers, since the team won its season series over Boston, 3-1, and wouldn’t have to face the top-seeded Bucks until the Eastern Conference Finals, but nothing’s going to be easy for a No. 6 seed. 

We analyzed the Celtics, Heat and Pacers as possible first-round opponents for the Sixers here

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Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons reportedly had clean MRI on left knee

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons reportedly had clean MRI on left knee

When Ben Simmons flexed his left leg after lobbing a pass for Al Horford and immediately headed off the floor Wednesday during the Sixers’ win over the Wizards, it was logical to be concerned. But, according to a report, Simmons’ knee injury is not as severe as one might have feared watching him walk toward the locker room. 

An MRI on Simmons’ knee was clean and he’s expected to be day-to-day, per Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium. It's worth noting this is not an official update from the Sixers, who Brett Brown said postgame he expected to issue an announcement soon about Simmons' status. 

The 24-year-old recovered from a nerve impingement in his lower back over the NBA’s hiatus, and he felt strong and explosive heading into the league’s restart. He’s now serving as the Sixers’ starting point forward, an adjustment Brown thinks he’s approached well.

“I do feel like Ben has been amazing,” Brown said before Wednesday’s game, “in regards to just being mature on ‘Put me wherever you think I can best help the team.’ At times maybe he hasn’t gotten a touch the way he needs to get a touch, sometimes — which was easier when he was always the primary ball carrier. And so I applaud him tremendously on being a great teammate, trying to accept a new type of ecosystem that we’re trying to use him in.”

Simmons looked for his shot often in Wednesday’s game, though with little success. He missed an open corner three-pointer in the first quarter, his first legitimate regular-season try from long distance since Dec. 7, and made 2 of 10 field goals overall in 23 minutes. 

If Simmons misses any games, Brown will have a few options for reshuffling his starting lineup. There’s a case to be made for just about every member of the current rotation, which Brown cut down to nine players on Wednesday. Al Horford could slide into the frontcourt if Brown wants to work on the Horford-Joel Embiid pairing, which has a plus-15.6 net rating in 40 minutes together at Disney World after being the Sixers’ worst regular duo pre-hiatus.

Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz and Glenn Robinson III have all started games this year, though Robinson is dealing with an injury himself, having missed the team's first three seeding games with a left hip pointer. Perhaps Brown could go with Alec Burks if he’s looking for an extra ball handler and more time to evaluate his potential backup point guard in the playoffs.

The main takeaway here, however, is not the potential ripple effects on the Sixers' seeding game rotation. Rather, it's that a player the team will surely need to have available in order to make a deep playoff run reportedly has avoided a serious injury.

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