On Wednesday the Sixers led the Miami Heat 41-29 before coach Erik Spoelstra changed the momentum of the game by going to a zone defense. The Heat outscored the Sixers 67-39 over the next twenty-plus game minutes. It was pretty hard to watch as they gave Philadelphia’s offense fits and then raced up the court for open looks and stole many of the rebounds an enormous Sixers squad usually gobbles up, especially at home. Eventually the Sixers made a game of it in the late stages by turning up the defensive intensity. But it was too late. Well, another championship coach, Rick Carlisle clearly paid attention. Tonight he switched to zone when his team was trailing just 13-5 this evening. Over the next seven minutes, the Mavs built up a seven point lead of their own. They remained in control for most of the game after that point.
If you watched the last two games it appears as though the Sixers inability to beat a zone causes them to sort of mope or go through the motions on the defensive end as well. It’s a pretty nasty carry over effect:
Brett Brown: "I feel like our competitive spirit has taken a dent because of our inability to score."— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) December 21, 2019
Joel Embiid put up some mighty big numbers the last couple of games. Tonight he had 33 points and 17 rebounds. He didn’t have much help. Tobias Harris had a pathetic seven points on 3-11 from the floor and was a game low -28 plus/minus. Al Horford has looked particularly bad lately. Perhaps he is still dealing with knee soreness and hamstring tightness. He had nine points and two boards and was one of four from deep. He doesn’t appear to be a very natural fit alongside Embiid when they have the ball and he doesn’t appear to be especially spry lately either. To be fair, if he hit what was a decent look at a triple at the end of the Heat game on Wednesday, it would have put the Sixers up late and we might have a different narrative but here we are:
Al Horford on defense is a struggle right now.— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) December 21, 2019
Josh Richardson was OK. He had ten points and four assists. Ben Simmons had 12 points, 8 assists and 6 boards. But as a team, they didn’t look very fluid. Their awkward offensive fit has reached an inflection point here. Zone defenses are currently a big problem for them and as Brett Brown has observed, the impact of that clearly permeates to both sides of the ball. They can’t score, they mope on defense, they give up open looks and can’t rebound. And the cycle continues.
The Mavs were without their best player and MVP candidate this evening and simply couldn’t be stopped. Former Knicks Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kristaps Porzingis crushed Philadelphia. The duo had 49 points combined. KP owned the glass and had a career high 18 boards to go with his 22 points. One of the knocks on him in New York was that he was not a fierce rebounder. Well he has clearly put on some weight and was aggressive on the glass this evening. He’s embracing the chance to step up in Dončić’s absence:
Kristaps Porzingis last 5 games— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) December 21, 2019
22 PTS - 18 REB - 3 BLK
23 PTS - 13 REB - 3 BLK
26 PTS - 12 REB - 2 BLK
22 PTS - 14 REB - 2 BLK
20 PTS - 8 REB - 3 BLK
Stepping up as the #1 option pic.twitter.com/DKOUIDp2l0
Brett Brown is in a very tricky spot here:
He’s visibly scrambling to find some combinations of players that can get buckets and stops and has not yet come up with much over the current 3 game skid. He will need to continue trying because the Sixers are going to see zones on a nightly basis until they can demonstrate an ability to shoot a team out of one. There is not much time to strategize. Not much rest for the weary. The team plays tomorrow against Washington. Yeah, the same Washington who beat Philadelphia 119-113 back on December 5th. And while they’ll be looking for revenge, it’s not impossible they will be missing one of their key big men due to Embiid and Horford’s respective (and essential) load management programs.
Do they need to shake things up again with a trade? We expected some rocky moments offensively with this unit. But the break downs in defense is particularly alarming. The Sixers had one of the strongest home courts in the entire NBA. But recently that advantage has been neutralized by championship winning coaches utilizing college-style defenses.