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Beyond the box score: Observations from the Sixers’ wins over the Bulls and Magic

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Covering teammates’ (lack of) movement off Embiid post-ups, Covington’s (unusually) poor off-ball defense, and scram switches.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Two games, two wins. One blowout, one nail-biter. After a discouraging opening night performance, the Philadelphia 76ers have bounced back and rattled off a pair of wins over lottery-bound teams in the Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic.

Joel Embiid is putting up early flyers for his MVP candidacy, having dropped 62 points (55 percent shooting, 37.5 percent from deep), 22 rebounds, six assists and four blocks over that span, elevating his slash line to 28.3-10.7-2.7-2.0 through three contests.

Dig a little deeper, though, and both games have unearthed some trends to monitor moving forward. The goal here is to identify developments not quite discernible from the box score numbers. Let’s dive in.

Joel Embiid’s post-ups: a spectacle-worthy affair?

By now, it’s clear the Sixers offense is going to flow through Embiid’s post game. He’s arguably the most dominant low-post force in the NBA, using a blend of size, agility and footwork to carve up defenses. For fans and analysts, it’s often a marvel to watch Embiid use shot fakes, brute strength, or technique bred from repetition to score in the paint.

Apparently, his teammates are choosing to do the same. Fire up any number of clips over the past two games and they’ll probably look similar: Embiid operating on the block with little to no movement from the other four players on the court. That strategy might work if the Sixers surrounded him with a quartet of marksmen, but they don’t currently because of personnel restrictions.

This isn’t a problem singular to the beginning of the 2018-19 season. A lack of movement plagued the Sixers during last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals, and I wrote as much five months ago. However, implementing off-ball action and relocation is imperative, given the lack of spacing Philadelphia has to work with. Doing so can potentially mask some of those outside shooting flaws and has a much better chance of success than stationary ball-watching.

Embiid commands the defense’s attention, whether or not they send a double team. Guys are always keeping one eye fixed upon him in the event weakside help is necessary. Capitalizing on that gravity with some screening and motion could be the solution to some of the stagnant possessions that result from Embiid’s post touches.

It would also allow Embiid to showcase his passing talents more often. At times, he’s prone to tunnel vision, and while the lack of movement doesn’t excuse those bouts of shot-happy trips, it’s tough to blame him for all those instances if a better option never presents itself.

Embiid has improved his turnover rate each year, sporting a career-low mark of 9 percent currently, and might finally be taking an important step in his maturation. Employing him as both a scorer and playmaker on the block could be the path to fielding a high-powered offense through the outdated medium of post-ups.

Did somebody swap bodies with Robert Covington?

Following the Sixers’ opening night loss to the Celtics, I raved about Covington’s defense. I thought he was stout on the ball and expectedly elite off it. In the two games since, that same player has rarely made his way to the Wells Fargo Center.

Too often, an open look has materialized and a quick rewind of the action has pinpointed Covington as the culprit. Despite getting cooked off the dribble more than a few times against the Bulls, his on-ball defense isn’t his calling card, so penning a section about a brief two-game sample regarding his struggles in that area isn’t worth it. Rather, it’s been his timing, energy and alertness — three of his hallmarks — as an off-ball defender that have troubled me.

It’s rare to catch Covington ball-watching that regularly and be left playing catch-up against his man, but over the past two games — primarily against Orlando — it’s been a staple of his defense.

There’s more than enough data to suggest this is just a blip on the radar and it probably is, but nonetheless, Covington likely wouldn’t make his way onto any All-Defensive First Team ballots at this juncture.

Combatting mismatches in the post

Generally, the Sixers switch everything among guys 1-4. It can hinder the effectiveness of screening if guys simply rotate assignments and allows for fluidity within a defensive scheme if guys aren’t pinned to one player, forced to track their every move. Any simple action can be switched to shut the door on a sliver of daylight potentially leading to a score.

Switch-heavy schemes produce mismatches, though, with bigs isolated on an island against crafty and quick ball-handlers, or guards looking helpless down low. One of the best ways to combat disadvantages in the post is through scram switches, a tactic frequently utilized by the Celtics against the Cleveland Cavaliers in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals.

Essentially, a scram switch means a big and a guard swap back to more traditional assignments before the offense can attack, with the execution coming during the entry pass or before a post player has initiated his move.

The Sixers have hinted at embracing this tactic over the last two games — and maybe even further back, though it hadn’t stood out to me before.

It hasn’t always been sharp, and sometimes, the vacant man is smart enough to relocate and cause confusion for the defender. Yet expecting guys like Markelle Fultz, JJ Redick, TJ McConnell, and Landry Shamet to bang in the paint is a lofty goal, but one that presents itself through the Sixers’ defensive scheme — unless scram switching is implemented.