For a bevy of reasons — Ben Simmons’ absence, health and safety protocols, poor offensive game-planning and defensive execution, etc. — the 19-16, sixth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers have cozied up with .500 basketball this season.
They are, however, fresh off an impressive road victory over the 23-11 Brooklyn Nets, their second win against an elite opponent in three weeks (Golden State on Dec. 11) and third consecutive win on the season. Back in November, they also nabbed two wins over the 24-10, East-leading Chicago Bulls. Nobody else in the NBA has wins against all three of those contenders — though not every team has had the opportunity.
Perhaps finally equipped with a full rotation (sans Simmons) for the first time in weeks, the Sixers might be able to establish some rhythm and continue to distance themselves from .500 ball. So, what worked so well in landmark wins over the Warriors and Nets? How can Philadelphia aim to replicate the process behind those resume-boosting games?
Variance, beneficial or otherwise, will always play a role in single-game samples. Yet there are undoubtedly commonalities that the Sixers, theoretically, can parlay into nightly success and make the jump from play-in resident to potential top-four seed.
While seemingly every team has unfortunately endured injuries and significant COVID issues this season, one aspect working in Philadelphia’s favor is the fourth-easiest remaining schedule, according to Tankathon. With 3.5 months left and just 4.5 games separating the Sixers from the two seed, there’s ample time to embark on a run.
But a run constitutes consistently good basketball, which has generally escaped this team since its 8-2 start. Changing its fortune means figuring out how to achieve said consistency, some of which can be gleaned from the threads linking together wins over Brooklyn and Golden State.
Superstar performances from Joel Embiid were paramount in each contest. He’s the engine of Philadelphia’s prosperity. The Sixers won’t always win when he dominates — history has repeatedly proven as much — but this team especially won’t often win if he’s not his superstar self. Against the Nets and Warriors, Embiid was his superstar self, scoring 60 points on 61.1 percent true shooting. The numbers are merely the end result, though.
The crux of his exploits was shot quality against undersized front-lines. Kevon Looney and Draymond Green are excellent defenders and assuredly better than LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Claxton and Blake Griffin, but all five are at a disadvantage versus the 7-foot, 280-pound Embiid. Those aren’t outliers either. Embiid has an advantage against most opponents. Since returning from his bout with COVID, he’s leveraged it en route to a slew of monstrous games, something he wasn’t doing much of before the three-week hiatus.
Look how hard he works to solidify deep position — often getting low and sealing his defender into the abyss — or ensuring he has space for preferable shots. After struggling during his first nine games of the year, Embiid’s been excellent at creating good positioning and shots over the past five weeks. Maintaining both is vital as he further regains his MVP form offensively.
More than Embiid’s heroics are required to notch wins against teams like Brooklyn and Golden State, however. Crisp execution offensively down the stretch, predominantly a foreign concept for Philadelphia during the Embiid Era outside of Jimmy Butler’s tenure, was imperative.
Over the final 5:04 against the Warriors, the Sixers scored 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting with four assists and one turnover. Over the final 4:29 against the Nets, the Sixers scored 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting with five assists and zero turnovers. Assists aren’t always a barometer for effective offense, but in the case of the Sixers, a team short on go-to self-creators, they certainly can be.
What stands out from many of these crunch-time possessions is Philadelphia avoiding any over-reliance on mid-post touches for Embiid. Instead, it diversified the attack and derived substantial offense from ball-screens. Seth Curry, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris and Embiid — the team’s four best offensive players — all were featured. The occasional Embiid post-up against single coverage occurred, but wasn’t spammed to the point of exhaustion.
Historically, when searching for a crucial bucket, the Sixers have tapped into that simple action and generated mixed results, skewing toward negative. In these wins, Embiid was still a prominent part of the late-game offense, but the defense was provided fewer opportunities to double and predictability wasn’t on its side. Some lucky shot-making helps (12 of 18, 33 points), but shrewd process amplified the randomness and that portion is entirely within Philadelphia’s control.
Now, a component largely outside of Philadelphia’s control is how defenses guarded Matisse Thybulle. He’s always going to complicate matters offensively, but his lack of floor-spacing and dribble-drive ability is magnified when opponents ignore him altogether. They’ll help on every play and make life arduous for Embiid in the post or elsewhere. Brooklyn and Golden State typically kept a man near him and treated him like any other ancillary spot-up shooter.
Thybulle was enabled to terrorize Stephen Curry (as well as James Harden and Kevin Durant to lesser degrees) without completely bogging down the offense. He was in the closing lineup for both games, didn’t really impede the Sixers’ attack and registered a handful of paramount defensive plays. Consider late-game possessions like these, where Thybulle’s man doesn’t sell out to prevent a deep touch for Embiid:
Embiid and the Sixers deserve credit for those scores, but the opposition is leaving meat on the bone there. Thybulle’s track record as a shooter and slasher don’t warrant being guarded like a viable 3-and-D wing. Brooklyn and Golden State’s unwillingness to tweak its approach ensured that didn’t matter.
Across these two games, Thybulle scored 12 points on 60 percent true shooting and didn’t serve as some glaring hindrance to offensive efforts. In conjunction with the defense he authored, that production is quite tenable and justified his spot in optimal units.
Thybulle’s nights were emblematic of two of the Sixers’ more impressive defensive showings of the season. According to Cleaning The Glass, they held Brooklyn to a 108.5 offensive rating Thursday and Golden State to a 98.9 offensive rating back on Dec. 11. Each time, the defense was synergistic in executing switches and rotating to help, particularly against the Warriors. That hasn’t been the case throughout the season, as Philadelphia’s defensive harmony and results have been rather sporadic.
On the year, the Sixers are 19th in defensive rating, but they’re seventh since Embiid re-entered to the lineup on Nov. 27, per NBA.com. Embiid and Drummond are both very good defensive centers. Thybulle and Danny Green are distinctly stout on the perimeter. Maxey is quickly developing, especially off the ball. Assistant coach Dan Burke is an excellent defensive mind.
Despite Simmons’ absence, this club, assuming health, wields the personnel to rank among the NBA’s top-10 defenses moving forward. Plays like these, when the Sixers eliminate airspace for the offense, are the blueprint and help illuminate Philadelphia’s profits against high-end teams.
Ten of the Sixers’ 14 January games come against teams at .500 or worse, presenting them a chance to build momentum. And in fairness to them, they’re 16-8 with Embiid available. The aggregate record distorts the quality ball they play when their superstar big fella is around. Still, those other 11 games happened and affect the standings.
The way they played during a couple of standout victories last month are glimmers of their ceiling. The results won’t be replicated entirely, but the manner in which those results were produced can be. That’s important, and should be a point of optimism for the organization and its fans entering the second half of the season.