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Zone defense provides boost in Sixers’ comeback win over Atlanta

The Sixers successfully threw a curveball at the Hawks in their 104-101 win Monday night.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

While the Philadelphia 76ers wouldn’t have secured their 104-101 win over the Atlanta Hawks without the offensive contributions from Joel Embiid down the stretch, the team’s defense throughout the game was what placed them in a position to seize the victory. After trailing by as many as 16 points, the Sixers stacked one stop on top of another, chipping away for what would eventually be their largest comeback win of the season.

Indeed, defense has been the catalyst for Philadelphia’s recent run of success, as Embiid noted after the game:

“Obviously, the last four games they’ve been playing on another level. Defensively and offensively, I think our offense has been so good because of our defense, so I think that’s why we’ve been winning all those games.”

Head Coach Doc Rivers echoed that sentiment:

“We’re playing great as a team defensively. These are the nights that your defense wins games for you, when you struggle offensively.”

A large part of Philadelphia’s defensive fortitude on Monday night could be attributed to their usage of a zone defense. As noted by Derek Bodner in his Daily Six Newsletter, the 27 zone defense possessions were the most for the Sixers this season. They allowed 88.9 points per 100 plays against the Hawks while playing zone.

Doc Rivers recognized the zone defense’s contributions during the postgame press conference:

“We loved it. We loved it. They were killing our man defense early. And you just need to go to that to get them out of rhythm. We felt like, and I can’t remember the game. Maybe it was the back to back. Maybe it was the last game we lost. On back to backs, zones are great because guys can get some rest and still be out on the floor and play some offense. So we talked about it. Miami, I think yesterday played 80-percent of the game in zone, so we got a chance to look at [Atlanta’s] zone offense. It’s funny, when you look at it, teams have one or two zone offenses. They have 30 to 40 man plays, so we just felt like it was easier to scout their zone offense than it was to guard them in man.”

In a humorous juxtaposition, there might be some disagreement about how much the Sixers work on their zone defense.

Here’s Rivers on how often they work on the zone:

“Every day. It’s progressing. I love it. It’s won some games for us already this year.”

Tobias Harris respectfully disagrees, however:

“Not that much. Honestly, we haven’t practiced zone that much, and they were able to make a lot of shots.”

The truth may lie somewhere in the middle, but the Sixers undoubtedly have the personnel to play an effective zone defense in spurts. Matisse Thybulle and De’Anthony Melton are two of the top wings in the league at causing steals and deflections. Thybulle was a team-best plus-12 in just eight minutes of action on Monday, in large part because of his ability to create chaos and cover a lot of ground out top of the Sixers’ zone. With those two out front and versatile big men like Embiid and Paul Reed on the roster, the Sixers are well-equipped to keep the zone as an option in their back pocket.

Atlanta might also be an opponent against whom zone is particularly effective. Hawks center Clint Capela spoke about his team’s struggles in that area postgame:

“Teams have been using a zone defense to slow us down. They did it tonight. They slowed us down and made us hesitate a little bit. Tonight, we could have done a better job of attacking their zone to keep up with our speed.”

Star guard Trae Young also made a point to mention it:

“Miami and them [Philadelphia] tonight both play zone. They’re making us shoot perimeter shots, making us make tough shots. I think that’s really what it is. They’re just making us take perimeter shots. They just been running zone, and we just got to find a way to beat that.”

Zone defense is never going to be a big part of the Sixers’ identity. Derek Bodner also mentioned that while the Sixers are third in the league in zone usage, it only accounts for seven percent of their defensive possessions. Still, it’s great to have ways to change things up time and again, particularly during a long regular season when teams might not have the opportunity to scout that aspect of a team’s game, or a specific opponent might have difficulty in that area, like with the Hawks. Without the zone, the Sixers probably don’t grab the victory Monday night, and if it swings even a handful of outcomes throughout the year, that could end up making a difference in the standings, and ultimately, Philadelphia’s hunt for a title.

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