The Philadelphia 76ers’ defense has been trending upward lately. Over their last 9 games, they’re 8-1 with the league’s best defensive rating and fifth-highest net rating (8.9). Their intensity and offense eased up late in their 103-94 win over the Utah Jazz on Monday, yet for the most part, the Sixers’ defense was impressive. Especially as, like the Jazz (who were also on the second night of a back-to-back), they were playing their third game in four days.
While pick-and-roll defense has caused the Sixers some issues this season, their performance against the Jazz was a good example of what they’re capable of. They wouldn't have established a 26-point lead earlier in the game without it.
Philly were hounding at the point of attack and picked up 12 steals, frequently breaking up anything the Jazz threw at them. Donovan Mitchell (6-of-19 shooting with four turnovers) and Mike Conley (3-of-9 shooting with four turnovers) were well contained, thanks in particular to the efforts of Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle.
Simmons, as my LB colleague Jackson Frank laid out in this excellent article, is playing like an elite defender this season. He’s gone up a level all around. This includes his on-ball defense, where the impact of his strength, quickness and anticipation has all been heightened by elevated effort.
Simmons tallied four steals and did a great job of fighting around screens and trailing from behind to smother players, prevent drives and force difficult mid-range shots. This is exactly what Brett Brown’s drop scheme needs, with perimeter players going over screens and big men dropping into the paint.
After initially going over the dribble hand-off screen in this play, Simmons immediately shifts backwards, gives Mitchell no room to breath and holds the Jazz guard to a contested turnaround jumper:
Here, you can see the impact of Simmons’ unique size and mobility. Even though he gets hit by Rudy Gobert’s screen, Simmons slides back into the lane and has the reach to contest Mitchell’s pull-up:
Thybulle has continued to show promising signs of growth recently. He’s playing more composed, mistake-free basketball at both ends of the floor, and made a big impact against the Jazz. To go along with 9 points thanks to perfect 3-of-3 shooting from three-point range (taking him to 43.2 percent from deep for the season), he was disruptive in all the ways Philly have grown accustomed to. He recorded 3 steals and 7 deflections in his 25 minutes, navigated screens well as usual, contested ball handlers from behind to bother attempts to attack, and generally competed on the ball with all the length and speed at his disposal.
Here, the Jazz try running Mitchell out of a hand-off and screen to get him going downhill, but Thybulle sticks right behind to prevent any clear pull-up looks before contesting a floater:
In the following play, Thybulle has no trouble beating Ed Davis’s screen and forces Mitchell to throw the ball away into traffic. James Ennis does his part by jumping the passing lane and beating Joe Ingles to the ball:
Simmons and Thybulle helped thwart a pick-and-roll each in the next play. Again, Simmons gives Mitchell no room to operate by trailing closely behind him and Al Horford is in position with his arms raised at the rim. Once the Jazz reset to Ingles to run another pick-and-roll, it’s Thybulle’s turn to pursue on the ball. He spins around Gobert’s screen and Horford steps up to anticipate the pocket pass and get a steal:
Gobert was the Sixers’ main problem. He outplayed Joel Embiid and scored 27 points on 11-of-15 shooting. Gobert picked up some easy points from hanging around the basket and attacking the offensive glass, and was able to spring open a few times out of pick-and-rolls, too. He’s an elite roll man, and if his ball screen hits well and he gets a head of steam rumbling down the lane, sometimes there’s not much you can do to stop his hulking frame getting to the rim for quick finishes.
A few times, Gobert either overcame Embiid or Horford at the rim, the Sixers’ centers weren’t quite fast enough to recover inside to cut him off, or they were wary of fouling. Apart from that, though, the Sixers displayed loads of strengths.
For the season, the Sixers rank 27th in points allowed per game to pick-and-roll ball handlers. They’ve faced plenty of talented guards early in the season, and with inconsistent effort and drop coverage inviting opportunities to attack when defenders can’t evade screens, the Sixers’ scheme has left some open looks for good shooters. Their scheme is also designed to encourage increased mid-range attempts in these situations. Meanwhile, they're allowing the fewest three-point attempts (26.1 per game) in the league by a comfortable margin (Detroit is second at 29.6).
The other positive is that the Sixers rank 10th in points allowed per possession to pick-and-roll ball handlers at 0.83. Roll men typically aren’t finding much success against them either, scoring just 0.91 points per possession (second in the NBA) and producing 6.5 points per game (fourth).
There are still ways for Philly to improve as well. Simply having a fully healthy team with Josh Richardson available is a start. A trio of Thybulle, Richardson and Simmons on the perimeter is menacing for anyone to deal with. The latter becoming one of the best defenders in the league can take the whole defense up a notch. And if this team can keep their effort consistent and maybe mix in some more aggressive hedges against pick-and-rolls to toy with opponents when need be, the Sixers have all the defensive personnel they could need. It's still early, and team defense should improve in time as chemistry and communication is developed.
Now, sitting at fourth in defensive rating for the season, Philly are starting to show more of the imposing identity everyone expected.