Utah Jazz

Time for Sixers to turn the tables on opponents with pick-and-roll

Time for Sixers to turn the tables on opponents with pick-and-roll

The pick-and-roll is one of the simplest plays in basketball.

Generally, a big man will set a screen for the ball handler. The big will roll to the basket and the ball handler will assess their options.

As simplistic as it may be, it’s incredibly hard to guard — as the Sixers have demonstrated over the last couple of seasons. It also helps when both players running it are exceptionally skilled.

Perhaps it’s about time the Sixers flip the script and force other teams to guard them in that action.

In a 106-104 loss to the Jazz in Utah Wednesday night (see observations), they were victimized yet again by it. Donovan Mitchell hit his first four shots with a couple coming out of it. Mike Conley, who killed the Sixers last year while with the Grizzlies, also gave them some problems. Same goes for Bojan Bogdanovic, another player that’s given them fits in the past.

Raul Neto, who was thrust into action when Ben Simmons had to leave the game with a shoulder injury, acquitted himself well against his former team. He did help mitigate a little of the damage Mitchell and the Jazz were doing, but by the time the Sixers tightened things up, it was too little too late.

"I think it's all details,” Neto said to reporters postgame. “Some mistakes on our coverage with our defense. They're a great team — they've got great shooters and I think little mistakes, you pay for them. It's the beginning of the season — we've gotta get better, gotta get our communication on a better level. I think that's going to be huge for us."

To be fair, the Sixers are defending the pick-and-roll much better than they have in seasons past.

Part of that is new assistant coach Ime Udoka, who came over from the Spurs this offseason. Udoka serves as Brett Brown’s “defensive coordinator.” The team appears more willing to switch up coverages and make in-game adjustments so far this season.

The other part is personnel. Replacing JJ Redick with Josh Richardson defensively is a massive upgrade. Richardson is long, athletic and excels at “rearview” contests. 

Richardson felt that the Sixers could’ve been a little more aggressive and put the Jazz’s skilled players in tougher situations.

“I think we gotta guard a couple actions better,” Richardson said. “I think we let them play too comfortable at the top of the key, entering the ball in the offense, I think that hurt us pretty bad. Just because they got a lot of tall guys that can play out of pin downs and that can play make and score. So I think we got to make a play a little bit further up.”

Richardson had his best game as a Sixer. Though his defensive presence has been felt throughout his first six games, Wednesday night was the first true glimpse of what he can do offensively, as he finished with 24 points (8 of 13) and four assists.

The same cannot be said for Tobias Harris and Al Horford. Both players were excellent in Joel Embiid’s absence over the last two games. On Wednesday, they struggled from the field, going a combined 7 of 25.

With Horford (seven points, 3 of 14), he was getting good looks and it appeared to just be one of those nights.

For Harris (16 points, 4 of 11), perhaps it’s time for Brown to start adjusting his offense to fit the $180-million man’s skill set. Harris was excellent in the pick-and-roll during his time with Clippers, where he was a borderline All-Star last season.

Brown has never run much pick-and-roll during his time with the Sixers. Again, a large part of that is personnel driven. Not only has Brown not had the players to optimally execute it, but he also has a center in Embiid that’s admitted that he doesn’t love rolling.

Embiid is also a dominant force and the main reason the Sixers lead the league in post ups per game. They're dead last in the percentage of pick-and-rolls they run. Those numbers shouldn't completely flip, but a better balance might do some good.

The Sixers need the best out of both Harris and Embiid if they’re going to get to where they want to go. You saw in the second half Wednesday that the combination of these players can produce good looks. Yes, the post is still where Embiid needs to/will do the bulk of his damage, but you could tell in the second half he was laboring after missing two games.

The pick-and-roll could allow him to maybe get better looks around the basket, perhaps even allowing him to post up after smaller players switch onto him.

“You got to give them credit — they got the shots they wanted,” Harris said of the Jazz. “They played at a really good pace that kind of over the course of the game was just a little bit too much for us. But I will say that and their ability to limit us to taking some tough shots. We still put ourselves in position to be able to win the game, came up short. So I just think a lot of things we can learn from this game moving forward and you just got to chalk it up and get ready for the next.”

Maybe it’s time for Brown to switch things up and start putting the opposition in a similar bind.

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Ben Simmons exits with injury and ragged Sixers fall to 2nd straight loss

Ben Simmons exits with injury and ragged Sixers fall to 2nd straight loss

BOX SCORE 

The Sixers have their first losing streak of the season, and they also lost an All-Star to injury Wednesday night.

They fell in Utah to the Jazz, 106-104, and Ben Simmons left early after sustaining an injury. Joel Embiid (27 points on 5 for 16 shooting, 16 rebounds) came back into the lineup after a two-game suspension for a fight last week with the Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns.

The Nuggets are up next for the 5-2 Sixers on Friday (9 p.m./NBCSP).

Here are observations from the loss: 

Simmons exits early 

Simmons left in the second quarter with a right shoulder injury. He was diagnosed with a minor sprain of the AC joint in his right shoulder and will be re-evaluated Thursday. Simmons appeared to injure the shoulder when he fell on his back with a little over 11 minutes left in the first, as you can see in the video above.

Though Simmons hasn’t met early-season expectations offensively, he entered Wednesday’s game with an NBA-best 20 steals.  

The temporary replacement plan

After spending the first four years of his career with the Jazz, Raul Neto played much more than the Sixers would have planned in his return to Utah.

He defended Donovan Mitchell (24 points on 10 for 23 shooting) well overall, forcing him into several contested mid-range attempts during a stint late in the first quarter and early in the second. Neto had a ragged stretch in the third period, sprinting in for a layup attempt that hit the underside of the rim and then dribbling into traffic for a careless turnover on the Sixers’ next possession. He finished with 11 points on 5 for 11 shooting, four assists, four turnovers and three steals in 30 minutes. 

Furkan Korkmaz, who started the second half in Simmons’ place, had six points on 2 of 4 shooting in 24 minutes. 

In Simmons’ absence, Josh Richardson handled the ball more and followed up his worst game as a Sixer (8 points on 3 for 11 shooting vs. the Suns) with his best from a scoring standpoint. He scored 24 points on 8 for 13 shooting.

Not peak Embiid

Embiid wasn’t his sharpest and he looked tired at times, putting his hands on his knees and not exerting effort except when he absolutely needed to. 

A one legged, Dirk Nowitzki-esque shot was the highlight of his night. 

Though Embiid drew 18 free throws, Brown thought he should have had two more in the third quarter and was assessed a technical foul for vehemently expressing that opinion. It was a frustrating game across the board for the Sixers, though they hung around and cut Utah’s lead to two points with a little over two minutes to go after being down by as many as 13 in the second half.

Time to tweak the pick-and-roll defense? 

The Sixers’ preference with pick-and-roll defense has been to “force the ball off the screen” and drop the big man. We’ve seen during this road trip how that approach is often ineffective when the ball handler’s defender fails to work over the screen and falls well behind the play, resulting in open mid-range jumpers. Mitchell made his first four shots of the game Wednesday, including a couple of uncontested mid-range looks off pick-and-rolls. 

While Embiid is an excellent overall defender, he’s not quite as flexible in pick-and-roll coverage as Al Horford. It’s understandable why there’s a team-wide desire to drop the big man into what assistant coach Ime Udoka calls “center field.” 

At some point, though, perhaps the Sixers will consider tempering their guard’s aggression in defending the initial ball screen. Richardson and Matisse Thybulle are skilled at the “rearview contest,” but, with how often the Sixers’ guards are being wiped out of the play, it might make sense to try some more frequent variations to their core philosophy in that area. 

Harris and Horford drop off 

Horford and Tobias Harris combined for 104 points on 56.9 percent shooting during Embiid’s suspension. They faded into the background a bit against the Jazz offensively when Embiid was on the floor, with the odd burst into the spotlight.

The two totaled 23 points on 7 for 25 shooting Wednesday. While the Sixers did attempt to center the offense more around Horford early in the third quarter and ran plenty of pick-and-roll with Harris early in the fourth, both missed some shots they’d normally convert. 

The Sixers’ post offense around Embiid was largely stationary. While that’s in part by design to provide Embiid with outlets in specific floor spots, the Sixers could use a little more movement. It would also help if Embiid held the ball less before making his move — the whole offense sometimes comes to a stop when he’s down low.

In Embiid’s first game back, though, that’s not a serious concern. One can understand his instinct to be deliberate with the ball after not playing a competitive game for a week. 

If Embiid further develops as a playmaker and ball mover, more opportunities will open up for Harris and Horford when the starters are on the floor. 

A bad night on the boards 

The Sixers entered Wednesday’s game having grabbed 55 percent of available rebounds, best in the NBA. 

They got outrebounded for the second straight game, and the margin Wednesday was significant —Utah had a 50 to 42 edge. 

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Ben Simmons dealing with shoulder injury, will not return for Sixers vs. Jazz

Ben Simmons dealing with shoulder injury, will not return for Sixers vs. Jazz

Updated: 10:56 p.m.

The Sixers got Joel Embiid back, but their other All-Star was forced to leave the game against the Jazz Wednesday.

Ben Simmons is dealing with a minor sprain in the AC joint in his right shoulder and did not return to the game in Utah. He'll be re-evaluated Thursday in Denver. The injury appeared to occur with 11:04 remaining in the first. Simmons was jumping for a loose ball and was bumped which caused him to land awkwardly on his back.

Simmons attempted to come back into the game in the second quarter, but then was subbed out shortly after and had to go back to the locker room.

In his place, Raul Neto is saw extended time against his former team and had 11 points, four assists and three steals in 30 minutes.

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