Sixers film review

2020 NBA playoffs: Which 1st-round opponent would be best matchup for Sixers?

2020 NBA playoffs: Which 1st-round opponent would be best matchup for Sixers?

If the NBA’s Disney World quasi-bubble concept goes ahead as planned and the season resumes with eight “seeding games,” the Sixers have three likely potential first-round playoff opponents: the Celtics, Pacers and Heat. Which matchup would be best for them?

Going strictly off regular-season performance, the answer would be Boston, since the Sixers won their season series over the Celtics for the first time since the 2013-14 campaign.

There isn’t necessarily one coherent theme from the Sixers’ wins over the Celtics. Their defense was strong on Opening Night and Kemba Walker had a cold shooting performance, hitting just 4 of 18 shots and struggling against Matisse Thybulle and Josh Richardson. Joel Embiid had perhaps his best game of the season on Dec. 12, posting 38 points, 13 rebounds and six assists. Al Horford and Richardson were strong with Embiid sidelined by a torn ligament in his left ring finger on Jan. 9. 

Simmons’ ability to break free in the open court would likely be crucial in a playoff series. The NBA’s leader in steals averaged 18.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists against Boston, and he was one of several defenders who fared well against Jayson Tatum. A first-time All-Star, Tatum shot 24 for 72 against the Sixers (33.3 percent) and 5 for 16 when guarded by Simmons (31.3 percent). 

When the Sixers fell to Boston in the second round two years ago, Simmons’ limitations in the half court were somewhat problematic as the Celtics sagged off and blocked his path to the paint. Though there are ways to address that, including using Simmons more often as a screener and roller, his speed and athletic talents can bypass everything. 

The more Simmons can transition from deflecting passes like a free safety to tossing no-look assists, the better. 

Against Boston, it would help for Brett Brown and the Sixers to have intelligent wrinkles and adjustments ready to go, since both teams know each other so well. Savvy improvisations wouldn’t hurt either. 

The Celtics seemed caught off guard by this look on Jan. 9, as it first appeared Furkan Korkmaz was going to curl up to the wing off a Horford down screen. Instead, Horford sprinted up and, shielded by a Tobias Harris screen, drained a three. 

Jimmy Butler would be the center of attention in a Sixers-Heat series, the comic book villain with a devilish smile, but he’s far from Miami’s only playmaker.

The Heat would surely throw a healthy volume of pick-and-rolls at the Sixers, who’d need to have well-defined principles for each look and each ball handler. On the play below, the Sixers “ice” the pick-and-roll with the corner filled, shading Kendrick Nunn toward the baseline. Horford fails to track the rolling Meyers Leonard, but Embiid rotates over and eliminates any problem. 

On this next sequence, All-Star big man Bam Adebayo and Leonard form a sort of wall at the top of the key. The Sixers are clearly prepared for this slow-developing action, but their coverage is nevertheless ineffective.

You can see the plan is for Horford to hedge and Embiid to drop. To Butler, though, Horford’s hedge is like the sound of a phone alarm for a sleep-deprived teenager. He’s aware of it but has no problem hitting snooze, driving into the paint and putting pressure on the Sixers’ defense. 

Finally, we move to Indiana, an opponent with two 6-foot-11 starters in Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. 

Theoretically, the Pacers having a very large frontcourt should be favorable to Horford. Another factor to consider with Indiana’s size is that Harris has to match up against wings like T.J. Warren. That's not a novel challenge for Harris, who's had his perimeter defense tested often this year when playing as a small forward next to Embiid and Horford. 

He had mixed results against the Pacers. On Nov. 30 and Jan. 13, Indiana players shot 10 of 26 when defended by Harris. On New Year’s Eve, when the Sixers were blown out without Embiid, they were 8 for 8 against him. 

This next play is a solid example of what Harris would have to do in the postseason vs. the Pacers. Warren makes a zipper cut through the middle of the floor, rubbing off Turner at the nail. Though Harris falls a half-step back, he stays with the play and contests from behind. 

In their two losses to the Pacers, the Sixers had their worst three-point shooting effort of the season (Jan. 13) and fifth-worst (New Year’s Eve). They shot 12 of 62 from long range in those games. 

When Simmons drives and hits the open man, he has to make it. Not all the time, of course, but certainly at a better rate than 19.4 percent if the Sixers would want to beat Indiana in a series. 

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Are the Sixers and Al Horford actually 'built for the playoffs'?

Are the Sixers and Al Horford actually 'built for the playoffs'?

Al Horford’s first season as a Sixer has featured a few lowlights.

There have been several sequences like the one below, in which Horford fails to box out Derrick Jones Jr., lets Jimmy Butler jump in front of him to snag the loose ball Joel Embiid saved and, after a clap of frustration, runs out toward Butler and watches him sink a corner three. 

A primary problem has been the offensive performance of the Horford-Embiid pairing. The Sixers have a 100.6 offensive rating when the tandem is on the floor together, three points worse than any Sixers duo with at least 300 minutes played. When you add Ben Simmons to the Horford-Embiid combination, the team's offensive rating drops to a dismal 98.8. For context, the Warriors have the lowest offensive rating in the NBA this year at 104.4. 

When those three have had success with each other offensively, it’s often been inelegant. On this play against the Heat, Embiid tussles with Meyers Leonard as he moves to set a cross screen for Simmons. When Leonard gets tripped up in the midst of the shoving, Horford finds an open Embiid. 

That’s a great result, and Horford can indeed be a threat from the high post as a passer, but this kind of pure “bully ball” is not very dependable offense. 

In theory, making open shots in the flow of the offense is a more viable concept. Venturing out to three-point range more than he ever has, Horford is shooting 33.7 percent from long distance, which would be his worst mark since the 2014-15 season. On wide-open threes, he’s at just 35.6 percent.

Those numbers did bump up to 39.7 percent and 44.9 percent, respectively, over the Sixers’ last 15 games, although any momentum has been lost during a hiatus that’s now gone beyond three months. 

There’s nothing too profound to say here — Horford needs to step in, get his feet comfortably under him and trust that some of the excellent looks he’s missed this season will drop in Disney World. 

One skill of Horford’s that clearly hasn’t regressed is his passing. He's still one of the best passing centers in the NBA, not too far behind big men like Nikola Jokic, Bam Adebayo and Domantas Sabonis. Time and again, he makes a quick, smart read and leads his teammate into a good position.

Back on March 10, the day before the season was suspended, Brett Brown said he remained determined to develop the Horford-Embiid pairing. At this point, it’s very logical — self-evident, even — to say that Brown should not overdo it with that pair in the playoffs. 

Here’s a less obvious thought: The Sixers should try to play Horford more with Furkan Korkmaz. 

The 22-year-old Korkmaz and 34-year-old Horford have been somewhat of an odd couple, always eager to praise and support the other. They’ve also excelled on the court together. Out of every two-man lineup including Horford with at least 400 minutes, the Sixers' offensive rating (110.7) and net rating (plus-5.7) is best with the Horford-Korkmaz duo on the court. The two have played about 13.1 minutes per game together. 

On this play, Korkmaz happens to be the open man in the corner when Kyle Lowry scrambles out to Horford.

And on this sequence in Sacramento, a Horford-Korkmaz dribble handoff eventually leads into an isolation opportunity for Horford and basket against Alex Len.

Brown has insisted throughout this season that the Sixers are “built for the playoffs,” and Horford’s presence has been a big part of his reasoning. Perhaps more minutes with Korkmaz, a player with minimal postseason experience, can help him play at a higher level in Orlando. 

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2020 NBA return: Can Tobias Harris be a bona fide scorer in NBA playoffs?

2020 NBA return: Can Tobias Harris be a bona fide scorer in NBA playoffs?

The Sixers’ chances of a Disney World championship will certainly increase if they’re able to count on Tobias Harris as a scorer. 

How can the Sixers maximize Harris’ skills? One basic method they used often against top-tier opposition was having Harris set ball screens on smaller defenders. Ideally, that strategy forces a switch, gets Harris a favorable matchup and helps him temporarily avoid someone like Kawhi Leonard.

He did a nice job on the play below immediately establishing post position against Patrick Beverley. 

Much of Harris’ scoring has come in the flow of the offense. When Joel Embiid was out with a torn ligament in his left ring finger in January, the Sixers had success with Ben Simmons playmaking from the elbow. On this play from Jan. 25 against the Lakers, Shake Milton gives the ball to Simmons, then sets a cross screen for Harris. The action produces a good look, the kind the Sixers will need Harris to make regularly.

To his credit, Harris has shot 39.1 percent from three-point range since his early-season 0-for-23 slump and is 43.1 percent on wide-open threes since that dismal stretch.

One action the Sixers ran frequently for Harris before the season was suspended had him receiving staggered ball screens at the top of the key. The ideal result is one of those screens being effective enough to necessitate a switch, as it did on this next play vs. the Lakers. Harris drives hard to the middle on Dwight Howard, pump fakes and draws a foul.

Though it will never be one of his strengths, it would help the Sixers if Harris could create more free throw attempts by seeking contact like this when appropriate. Out of all players averaging at least 19 points this season, he’s taken the fifth-fewest foul shots per game (2.9). 

It’s incumbent on Harris to give this action a chance to be effective, or to shift the offense in a different direction when nothing’s happening. Khris Middleton played great defense here in fighting over Simmons’ initial screen, but Harris must be stronger and more decisive. Crossing back and forth without any true conviction won’t usually work in the playoffs.   

There’s obviously a fine line between patience and excessive deliberation. Harris walked it well in our next sequence by waiting until Simmons could screen Middleton at an effective angle. He then had the wherewithal to pause in the paint with Middleton on his back and Brook Lopez in front of him, giving Embid a chance to cut from the left wing to the hoop. 

Harris had been above average as an isolation player for the last three seasons, but he’s in the 48th percentile this year in terms of points per isolation possession. The simplest explanation for his efficiency dropping is him shifting to small forward and encountering more agile defenders. 

Still, Harris has jolts of explosiveness. 

Given that he’s leading the NBA in minutes played and had been bothered by a right knee injury, perhaps he’ll be fresher and quicker if/when the season resumes. 

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