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The Sixers’ New Starting Five in Crunch Time

The new group passed its first test with flying colors

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

By now, you’ve likely seen the stat that Philadelphia’s new starting unit had a 31.5 net rating in its 17 minutes together against Denver Friday night. For some quick context, the Milwaukee Bucks have the best net rating in the league as a team at 10.0. As Larry David might say of Philadelphia’s initial showing with the new group: pretty, pretty, pretty good.

Sixers fans and impartial observers alike wondered how the new pieces would fit together. Where would the team turn with the game on the line? Fortunately for those curious individuals, we received an early look Friday night when Joel Embiid and JJ Redick subbed in for James Ennis and Boban Marjanovic with 4:09 left and the game tied at 103. It was as clean a slate as one could hope for to evaluate what the new starting five would do — crunch time against a high-caliber opponent.

Here was how the Sixers’ offense enfolded in those final few minutes:

First, Brett Brown drew up a play to screen Tobias Harris open on the wing. The Nuggets communicated a switch, but Nikola Jokic wasn’t able to stop Harris from driving toward the baseline for a mid-range floater.

On the next possession, the Sixers tried to run the backscreen lob to Butler, an action which has become something of a pet play for them. It wasn’t there, so Embiid popped out for a mid-range jumper. This wasn’t a great shot selection from Joel here, given his shooting struggles on the night and the lengthy amount of time remaining on the shot clock.

The next time down, a Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid pick-and-roll (hey, they do exist!) led to Simmons dribbling somewhat aimlessly and getting whistled for a turnover along the baseline.

With it still just a 2-point game, the Sixers went to their old faithful: a Redick-Embiid DHO action. The Nuggets were so concerned with Redick on the drive (understandable given his huge night) that he was able to shovel it over to Embiid for a semi-contested finish around the basket.

On the Nuggets’ subsequent trip down the court, Butler got the steal and was fouled on the breakaway. When the Sixers next had the ball in the half-court, it was the play you’ve probably seen a thousand times by now. Redick screened for Simmons and flared to the wing, and Simmons froze the defense before driving for a huge slam (and the foul). Redick said in the post-game press conference that it was the same play they ran for a 4-point play to defeat San Antonio.

On their final ‘normal’ possession of the game, the Sixers returned to another Redick-Embiid DHO, but Denver defended it well. Embiid was forced to iso and drained a pull-up jumper at the end of the shot clock.

The game finished out with Embiid missing a long 3 on a possession that was more about milking the clock, and Butler getting intentionally fouled twice.

On the whole, the Sixers ran one play each involving Harris and Butler, with the new additions acting as floor spacers on the other four plays around the ingrained trio of Embiid, Redick, and Simmons. Perhaps that’s just a product of Redick having a season-best performance; it makes all the sense in the world to involve him given how hot he was on the evening. It also seems quick to judge anything involving Harris since he had been with the team for barely a day’s time.

Notably, the Nuggets only scored 2 points from that 4:09 mark until there were just 30 seconds left in the game. The newfound scoring ability across the lineup is terrific, but so too is the size, length, and versatility on the defensive end. Ultimately, these are just a handful of plays and we have close to 30 more games this regular season to see how this group grows together.

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