The Sixers were one of the fastest paced teams in the regular season, with their 102.2 pace the 4th fastest in the league. Multiple factors contributed to their run-and-gun style, but it was personified by Ben Simmons. Simmons can go coast-to-coast as fast as anyone, with a rare combination of length and speed. And he uses those traits to his advantage as a scorer and a passer, and used them to lead the Sixers to victory down the final stretch of the season.
So when the Sixers got matched up with the Miami Heat, “slow them down” became the answer to the Heat’s question of, “How do we beat the Sixers?” Prior to his first playoff game, the approach to defending an offense lead by Ben Simmons figured to be to make him shoot jumpers and to take him out of his natural element: open court ball handling in transition. How can you do that? Make your make shots, give high effort in transition defense, find potential shooters, and pick Ben up defensively as early as possible. This, in turn, would force the Sixers to work further into the shot clock for looks, presumably get them out of rhythm, and play the Heat’s game, a slower style of ball.
So, Brett Brown should encourage his team to play as fast as possible, to “play our game” right? Well consider this: during the Sixers 74-43 2nd half romping of the Miami Heat, the Sixers played at a pace of 90.44, a pace that would easily be the slowest in the NBA if extrapolated over 82 games. During that 2nd half, the Sixers s-l-o-w-e-d it down while sporting an offensive rating of 161.9, and a net rating of 65.7. In the 1st half that saw the Sixers trail 60-56, the Sixers played at an astronomic pace of 110.96, with an offensive rating of 99.9 and a net rating of -9.3. The Sixers shot 56.5% in the 2nd half, compared with 38.8% in the 1st.
In the 2nd half, the Sixers took 3 less field goals than they did in the first half, but made 4 more 3PTs. They had only 1 turnover from the halfway mark to the end of the game, compared to 9 in the first half. Both of those categorical improvements (turnovers and 3PTs made) contributed heavily to the Sixers surge in the 2nd half and their freakish net rating. But the improvements were made possible by slowing the pace of the game; much of the 2nd half success came due to Ben Simmons and the rest of the roster letting the game come to them. And something tells me it was a message harped on by Brett Brown.
I rewatched the 2nd half, and from the eye test alone, the Sixers offense didn’t look all that much different. They ran many of the same plays we’ve seen all year. But the offense was making the most of the shot clock, taking many of their shots only after milking some time or passing up good shots for great shots. And as I’ve already noted with the pace numbers, the drop off between the first and second halves were enormous.
It may not be a pattern moving forward, but the Sixers made a concerted effort to allow the game to come to them, not take it to the Heat. It was almost as if the team had playoff jitters to start the game, and a yoga instructor was the sole voice in the locker room at intermission. But I think it’s safe to say that there wasn’t someone preaching meditation tactics at half time. Brett Brown, whether he said directly or not, decided, “We’re not beating them playing our game, so let’s beat them playing theirs.”
Some bounces went the Sixers way, for sure: the 3PTs were falling, the Sixers probably could have had more turnovers than just 1 in the 2nd half but had some luck scooping up loose change, an improbable shot or two went in. But something definitive changed, and that’s a testament to Brett Brown’s ability to make in-game adjustments. It’s possible, and maybe even likely, we see the Sixers play the rest of the round at a pace closer to what they’ve demonstrated in the regular season. It’s quite the positive sign, though, to see the team change their approach mid-game and have major success.
Ben Simmons’ passing vision and ability in the half-court doesn’t change versus the same characteristics in transition. Brown knew that, and encouraged more half-court offensive possessions. The Sixers were able to find higher percentage shots, and have the added benefit of conserving more energy for defense. It was a very methodical change that varied greatly from the strategy we’ve seen many times throughout the season. The slowed pace didn’t take the Sixers out of rhythm, it improved their offensive efficiency. To change your approach that significantly and have so much success is a good harbinger for the young Sixers as they await the return of a high usage player in Joel Embiid.