The Philadelphia 76ers are down 2-0 in their first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics, and there are many reasons why. Some of it simply comes from missing Ben Simmons, whose absence creates a host of problems at both ends of the floor. A lot of it is an accumulation of years of mistakes made by the Sixers' ownership and front office, who have squandered trade assets, built a team that's ill equipped to support their young stars, and drastically overpaid for Tobias Harris and Al Horford who aren’t good enough to justify their salaries and don’t fit their intended roles on this team.
Rather than focusing on the bigger, gloomier picture of the Sixers organization right now, though, let’s focus on the specifics of Game 2. Defense was a big problem for the Sixers. Specifically their pick-and-roll defense, as Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum in particular torched them off the dribble.
The Sixers began the game by sticking with their typical drop coverage approach. This scheme keeps their big man dropping back towards the lane to protect the rim while the point-of-attack defender chases the opposing ball handler around screens. The aim is to force opponents into low-efficiency shots (mid-range jumpers), and that’s what the Sixers were able to do this season. They allowed the fewest three-point attempts (29.4) and fewest three-point makes (10.4) per game in the NBA, and ranked 4th in opponent mid-range attempts, forcing 13.5 per game.
There are problems with this scheme, though. For one, Horford can’t be a dominant force dropping into the paint like Joel Embiid, who has the size, length and elite rim protecting presence to deter players who look to drive to the basket. Drop coverage can also lead to wide-open pull-up threes, if opponents set solid, high screens and their scorers are comfortable shooting off the bounce. And as competition rises in the playoffs, and opponents look to adjust and attack potential weaknesses, a lack of adjustment can be costly.
As the Celtics’ offense got going in Game 2, their pull-up ability out of pick-and-rolls stood out. It’s hardly surprising, either. They ranked 2nd in made pull-up threes per game this season at 5.3, and 3rd in efficiency at 35.6 percent.
The Celtics shot 19-of-43 from three on Wednesday, with Kemba Walker (22 points on 8-of-16 shooting) and Jayson Tatum (33 points on 12-of-20 shooting, including an 8-of-12 mark from three) leading the way as scorers. The Celtics have also slightly increased their pick-and-roll usage in this series, from 24.5 per game in the regular season to 27 through their first two games against Philly.
It was far too easy for Boston to exploit drop coverage with plays like the following. Even though Matisse Thybulle fights around Enes Kanter’s screen pretty quickly here, Tatum has all the time he needs to fire a triple with Embiid dropping back to the elbow:
Tatum found similar success in Game 1. The first play shows him coming off a pair of screens, forcing Josh Richardson to take such a wide angle that he can’t do enough to deter Tatum’s shot with Embiid dropping back to the free throw line. On the second play, Embiid comes up slightly higher past the elbow, but he’s still in no position to stop Tatum pulling up and Harris can’t be relied upon to wriggle past screens:
The next play is an example of Walker going to work. Thybulle again competes and makes a rear contest on Walker past Kanter’s screen, but Embiid is at the elbow and can’t provide any resistance against a shot that Walker is extremely comfortable (and efficient) with:
Walker isn’t used to having so much space to shoot when coming off screens. “It’s different,” he explained after the game when asked about how Philly guarded him, and how he was able to get going with pull-up jumpers. “It’s different for me. I really haven’t seen that much space in a very long time.”
The Sixers’ bigs don’t necessarily need to hard hedge against Tatum and Walker or trap them at the arc. At least not all the time. Embiid is mobile enough to move up the floor so he’s closer to a potential jumper, or hedge to contest/prevent an attempt, before immediately dropping back to give guys like Richardson and Thybulle more time to recover around screens. Horford has been moving better on defense in the bubble, too, and can’t be an anchor when dropping like Embiid.
Mixing up defensive coverages (from hedging, to using ICE and forcing ball handlers to the sideline, to dropping at different levels) and your level of aggressiveness is a good way to prevent scorers from getting too comfortable.
There are obviously concerns that come with hedging. For one, it’s asking more of Embiid to move around the perimeter and recover to the rim, when he’s already carrying a huge load on offense. Not to mention it’s harder for teams to implement major schematic changes when they aren’t used to adjusting — the Sixers (bar some slight changes, like a bit more hedging in their seeding bubble games), have been focused on drop coverage all year. Harder hedging can also create opportunities for opponents to drive by bigs at the arc when they get too close, or hit an open roller if defensive help doesn’t arrive on time. Embiid has to be fully locked in, and his teammates need to be ready to help.
Equally, though, the Sixers can’t keep giving up open pull-up threes to players who excel in such situations. And as good as Richardson and Thybulle can be at getting around screens, it doesn’t always matter if the screens are rock solid and their opponent only needs a split second to pull up. There’s only so long you can avoid adjusting your defense, hoping that players start missing open looks. Walker (who’s shot 36.5 percent on 5.9 pull-up threes per game this season) and Tatum (who’s made an elite 40.4 percent of his 4.7 pull-up threes per game), even if they cool down a little, are too good for that.
“They’ve got a bunch of guys that can put it on the floor and score the ball, but you’ve got to pick your poison,” Embiid said after Game 2 when discussing how to better defend the Celtics. “Jayson has been killing it, so you’ve got to find a way to get the ball out of his hands.”
“We’ve just got to be aggressive, got to be physical.”
Embiid has also acknowledged how problematic drop coverage has been against the Celtics.
“I know they want me to stay back on pick-and-rolls and protect the basket, but they’re coming off [screens] and making a lot of threes, so we’ve got to make adjustments,” Embiid explained. “I’ve got to come up and we’ve got to scramble all over the place, but something’s got to change. It just feels too easy, and they’re just walking into those shots... We’ve got to fix that.”
It wasn’t enough, but the Sixers did make some defensive adjustments as the game progressed.
Game 2’s second half
The Sixers tried a touch more zone defense which ended up doing little to work, and still gave up 63 second-half points (the Celtics shot 50 percent from the field and 9-of-21 from three over the final two quarters). Their defense simply wasn’t good enough all game. However, they did start bringing up Embiid and Horford against pick-and-rolls.
Take this play. Walker ends up getting an open mid-range pull-up, as Shake Milton tails Walker across the paint and gets caught on Theis (the Celtics’ center is brilliant at sealing off defenders to create openings inside for his teammates). That said, Embiid playing slightly higher — combined with Milton trailing — cuts down Walker’s room for a triple, and Embiid gets back inside on time.
If the ball defender (Milton here) recovers to contest as well, or the opposing ball handler can only settle for a mid-range jumper, that’s a win for the Sixers’ defense over an open three.
Horford comes up higher on the following play and sticks with Walker off the screen, hanging with him before making a good contest. Walker makes his shot, but a contested, step-back, mid-range jumper is the best shot a defense can force.
(A quick note on defending Walker, which should have been obvious before this series even started: Richardson has to take the assignment. Milton simply doesn’t have the quickness to keep up.)
The Sixers are fortunate that the Celtics don’t have any threatening stretch centers to use in 1-5 pick-and-pops. Embiid hedges against Walker here and stays a couple of steps inside the lane. Embiid hangs near Walker long enough for Milton to catch up, and Walker kicks the ball back out to Theis. While you don’t want to be giving up wide-open threes, it’s a shot you can live with if it’s going to Theis, especially if it means you can slow down Walker. Theis only attempted 2.2 threes per 36 minutes this season and made them at a 33.3 percent clip.
At the Sixers’ practice on Thursday, Brett Brown mentioned whether his team should have started moving their bigs up in pick-and-rolls earlier in Game 2. Given how the game played out, it’s safe to say adjustments from their typical drop scheme should have come sooner in this series.
Looking ahead to Game 3, Brown believes that this an important adjustment to focus on.
“In the second half [of Game 2], we had our bigs up on pick-and-rolls,” Brown said. “In the first half, maybe we could have gone at it sooner. When I look at it, Kemba really didn’t make threes, Jayson did.”
“It’s never clear cut that the ripple effects of what happens behind, say, Joel being up [such as an open rim roller or corner shooter] aren’t more punishing than that adjustment,” Brown added. “But I feel like that thing needs to be discussed a lot, and it will be today.”
The Sixers can’t fix all of their defensive problems. The Celtics are difficult to stop as is, and the Sixers don’t have the personnel left without Ben Simmons to adequately cover everyone on the perimeter.
The Sixers can adjust a few things, though. They can get more aggressive, and vary their defensive coverages. They need to if they want to look remotely competitive before they make an early departure from the playoffs.
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com.