The Philadelphia 76ers’ 117-111 win over the Detroit Pistons on Saturday felt like the kind of game they might have lost last season. Joel Embiid was out with injury (a right ankle sprain), Ben Simmons was out of sorts and forcing plays through the first three quarters, threes weren’t falling, and the offense — finishing with 22 turnovers — was generally struggling. Instead, the Sixers held firm to end the game and won the fourth quarter 34-28, led by their new center who stepped into Embiid’s starting spot for the first time.
Al Horford was brilliant in the fourth quarter. He finished the game with 23 points, nine rebounds and five assists, scoring 15 of his points in the final quarter by shooting two-of-three from three-point range and five-of-seven overall.
Pick-and-pops with Simmons reignited the Sixers’ offense. Over the last four and a half minutes of the game as Horford checked back in, before the Pistons’ last-minute attempts to foul and come back, the Sixers ran a pick-and-pop on each of their five half-court possessions — a steal from Simmons to set up a Horford dunk and a drive by Josh Richardson to earn a trip to the foul line in transition broke up a flurry of these plays.
Four of Philly's pick-and-pops used Simmons as the ball handler. The first play resulted in a wide-open three-pointer for Horford, showing how much space can be created by Simmons when opposing centers drop into the paint and worry about him driving to the rim. With three reliable shooters — Richardson, Mike Scott and Tobias Harris — lining the perimeter to keep the paint clear, Simmons attacked and fired a pass out to Horford as soon as his defender, Tony Snell, and Andre Drummond were both in the paint and too far from Horford to contest:
Without the option for defenders to freely help off weak shooters in the corners in this situation, teams will have their center drop more often to ensure there’s a line of defense against Simmons’ drive if his defender is being taken out by Horford’s screen. Horford slips the screen here so Snell stays in the play, but whenever Horford screens to clear out Simmons' man, opposing centers will be even more pressured into dropping further back towards the basket. And if extra help from the corners does come, Simmons will have reliable, open shooters to pass to on the move.
For the next score from a Simmons-Horford pick-and-pop, Horford utilized his dribble to beat Drummond’s closeout. Simmons pulled Drummond and Snell deep into the lane yet again before finding Horford, who calmly attacked Drummond's effort to close out by flying to the rim for a dunk:
The Pistons' weak-side defense was forced to respect the shooting of Scott and Harris. Richardson moves up the strong-side wing to try and pull away his man, Derrick Rose, who only makes a helpless swipe at the ball before Horford finishes.
Even if Rose successfully rotates over to help on Horford's drive, Horford can easily pass on the move to find Richardson relocating into space for a three. That's a key part of what makes Horford such a good pick-and-pop partner for Philly's ball handlers: he can counter and keep defenses guessing by putting the ball on the floor and making quality passes on the move.
To create Horford’s final three-pointer of the game, the Sixers followed a Simmons-Horford pick-and-pop with Richardson taking a turn as the ball handler. Here, Richardson makes a smart, simple play to reset another pick-and-pop before attracting two defenders. Horford’s screen put Rose a step behind, and the threat of Richardson driving into space or pulling up prompted Drummond to ICE the play (attempt to force Richardson to the sideline) and leave Horford:
Lineups built around the second unit with Richardson serving as backup point guard haven't been effective so far. It's not the ideal role for him leading the offense, and seeing Raul Neto (who Brett Brown seems to prefer over Trey Burke at the moment) receive a few more minutes to provide some extra playmaking off the bench would make sense. That said, Richardson is fully capable of serving as a second or third ball handler when he's on the floor, using plays like those above.
Two later attempts at this action weren’t quite as effective. One resulted in Simmons driving and settling for a fadeaway jumper against Drummond. Then, for the final pick-and-pop, Simmons stopped driving just past the free throw line and picked up his dribble too early, limiting the amount of space he could create for Horford by taking two defenders deeper into the lane. The Pistons also switched this time and sent Simmons’ man, Markieff Morris, to close out on Horford. Richardson wound up with the ball, and after an initial ball screen from Horford, isolated and threw up an awkward floater:
Defenses that embrace more switching or have faster centers than Drummond to close out on Horford will find more success against these actions. Nevertheless, it’s going to be helpful for Simmons to have Horford spacing the floor when he drives, and Horford can look to pass off the dribble if need be, too. It's going to be tough for opposing centers to find the right balance between helping in the lane on a driving Simmons and remaining as close as they can to Horford to contest a potential three-pointer. If the action breaks down all together, Horford can fall back on his ability as a playmaker and screener from the arc.
There are so many facets of the game where Horford will help Philly and shooting needs to be near the top of the list. Horford proved a willingness to up his volume in preseason and fire quickly from deep when given space, and through his first two regular season games he’s averaging a healthy 6.5 three-point attempts per game. This number will likely drop a bit, but it’s an indicator of Horford accepting a necessary increase in volume after averaging just 3.2 per game the last three years in Boston to pull defenders out as much as possible. This is particularly important for the starters to provide maximum spacing and three-point production.
Firing as the shot clock winds down with two defenders on him, as he did to help secure the Sixers’ win over Detroit with his final triple, isn’t the kind of situation where Horford has taken many threes before. Horford getting comfortable when he has less time to shoot, both as an outlet spotting up at the arc and in pick-and-pops, is what the offense needs.
An efficient pick-and-pop center is something the Sixers missed last season. This game against Detroit provided a few examples of how effective it can be, and how the Sixers can turn to it when the right matchup presents itself.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.