PJ Tucker had no trouble identifying where he’d like to see the Sixers improve defensively ahead of the team’s first post-All-Star game.
“This team, communication is always going to be No. 1. I’ve been saying that since training camp,” Tucker said with a chuckle Thursday morning following shootaround. “But it’s going to always be something. (Joel Embiid) doesn’t talk a lot, Tobias (Harris) doesn’t talk a lot, Tyrese (Maxey) doesn’t talk a lot. We’ve got a lot of guys that don’t talk a lot.
“But it’s just in those important moments and those spots, to be on the same page. That’ll be a difference-maker for us, especially because we’ve got guys who can really be good defensively.”
The Sixers holding the Grizzlies to 68 points over the final three quarters and erasing a 17-point deficit didn’t dramatically sway Tucker’s view.
“Well, it’s still not great,” Tucker said postgame of the Sixers’ defense. “It’s still pretty sh---y. It’s not great. We have glimpses where we’re really good. We’re really bad a lot. But we don’t stop, and that’s the beauty of it — being relentless, not stopping. ‘Yeah, that was terrible this quarter. Next quarter, we’ll step up and start taking stuff personally.’ Everybody starts picking it up, playing harder, boxing out, being physical.
“It’s the little things that kind of trigger everybody, and everybody gets involved. The more we can do that later in the year going into the playoffs, the easier our lives will be.”
Nothing was easy about winning a game in which Embiid missed 12 of his first 13 field-goal attempts. While that struggle might have ultimately made the comeback more satisfying, it also meant the Sixers experienced the full spectrum of Philly sports fandom.
“The first-half boos or the second-half cheers?” Tucker said with a laugh when asked about the home crowd. “The emotion, it was unreal. The second half was unbelievable. That’s probably as loud as I’ve ever heard it.”
Embiid’s defense delighted the fans on several occasions. He was an aggressive, deeply committed rim protector and brilliant overall in a six-block performance.
“Like I always say, defense is more important for me than offense,” Embiid said to reporters. “Even tonight, I could not make any shots, especially the ones that I usually make, but defensively, I thought I had to be Bill Russell tonight to kind of balance it out. As a team, I thought we did a great job, so we’ve just got to keep going.”
Tucker’s fourth-quarter stint at center with Embiid on the bench played a significant role in the Sixers’ fifth straight victory.
The team outscored Memphis by two points using Tucker at the five. The 37-year-old isn’t capable of anything resembling Embiid’s impact as a fearsome paint presence. Tucker is all about physicality, though, and his veteran’s instincts have been valuable in multiple comebacks this season.
He registered an important steal by showing on a pick-and-roll, reading Dillon Brooks’ drive, and swiping down to strip the ball.
“We don’t have a lot of practice time. We don’t have a lot of time to work on it,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said of Tucker-at-center lineups. “We talked to him before the break and told him we were going to do it more and more. I didn’t think tonight was the night, honestly, but it really helped us.”
Rivers was pleased Thursday to watch the Sixers score on back-to-back late-game possessions using the same set. While the action turned frenetic at times in the closing minutes, the Sixers found a fruitful half-court look. A Harden back screen temporarily freed Tyrese Maxey, who caught Embiid’s bounce pass in stride and dished to Harris for a corner three.
With Ja Morant wary of the back screen on the Sixers’ next play, Maxey cut through and ended up in the corner. Harden and Embiid had room to run a pick-and-roll and the Sixers’ All-Star big man hit a game-tying foul-line jumper.
The set is called “V-Out,” according to Rivers.
“It gives us space and movement,” he said. “Brooks didn’t really want to switch off of James. James set great picks. It also allowed James to get downhill, and it kept the floor spaced. It’s a heck of a play for us when we run it right and when we space and pass the ball, and I thought we did that.”
Of course, that offensive success only mattered because the Sixers considerably elevated their defense.
Though the current top gear isn’t shabby at all, Tucker is sure the team can be better.
“It’s really small stuff for different people,” he said. “Everybody has their own things, but overall as a team, we have to be more physical, I think. We’re not as physical as we should be. We’re so good on offense at times that I think the defensive part kind of goes out the window because we’ve got a lot of guys that can score a lot of points. And so you get Jo with all the blocks he was getting tonight; Tobias stepped up; everybody did their part. It makes a difference.”