For the team with the second-best defensive rating in the NBA (108.9), the Philadelphia 76ers have an abnormally high number of stretches where they look absolutely abysmal defensively. More often than not, those poor stretches come at the beginning of games. The Sixers come out lethargic on the defensive end and fall into a big of a hole, then find a sense of urgency and ‘lock in’ later in the game.
Sometimes they’re able to complete the comeback because Joel Embiid and James Harden are dang good at basketball. Sometimes they aren’t. Tuesday night fell into the latter bucket, as the Sixers gave up 67 points to the Washington Wizards in the first half, only to fall just short in erasing the nee-Bullets’ advantage for a 116-111 defeat.
The numbers back up what we’ve been seeing. I mentioned above that the Sixers are second in defensive rating, but breaking that down, Philadelphia is only 15th in the league in defensive rating during the first halves of games (112.3), but then first overall Association-wide during second halves (106.2).
After the loss to Washington, Doc Rivers provided his thoughts to reporters in D.C. on falling behind again in the first half:
“ … I didn’t think we had the right approach. I thought we came into the game — and you could see it early — we thought it was going to be an offensive contest and we were just going to outscore them. We put no defense into the game until the second half, and we had to do zone to do that. It was almost like the basketball Gods down the stretch … you don’t deserve it.”
Rivers elaborated further on the first-half defense:
“We put no pressure into the ball. They literally went wherever they wanted to go. It’s funny, though, I think the first six, seven minutes, that’s what told me. I think we had two forced turnovers and scored four points (off of them). You’ve got to convert, and we didn’t do that. We took the first rushed shot. That’s just not characteristic of how we’ve played during this stretch, so that’s a good lesson for that.”
It has been discussed before how the Sixers take their lead from superstar Joel Embiid defensively. You hate to blame the guy who was a team-best plus-eight against the Wizards and the main reason the team got back into the game at all, but his defensive intensity does often seem to serve as a bellwether for the group as a whole. Embiid spoke postgame Tuesday about lacking urgency early:
“That’s true. We let them hang around from the beginning of the game — something that’s been (happening) the last three games. We’ve just got to do a better job being focused from the beginning.”
He also provided what he felt were the biggest defensive breakdowns in the first half:
“Same thing. Not being physical enough starting the game. We had a good start, forced a lot of turnovers, but we couldn’t finish them off. Defensively, we just haven’t been there, so we’ve got to be better.”
As his Sixers tenure has progressed, Tobias Harris has steadily improved on the defensive end of the floor. Once a slight negative on that side of the floor, Harris now occasionally draws the assignment on opposing top scorers with varying degrees of success. Tobias also provided his assessment on what went wrong in Tuesday night’s first half:
“I thought the first half, we were just trying to trade baskets with them instead of getting the stops we needed to get out and get easy buckets. It’s one of those games where we knew we could score offensively, especially early on. We just didn’t have that eager focus on the defensive end for us to get enough stops. They were able to play that game, get into a rhythm, gain momentum, and be confident out there in what they’re doing. … That’s on us on the defensive end — how to start a game and how to know that each and every game in the NBA is hard to win, and you have to respect and honor every opponent.”
Harris later elaborated on whether he felt they overlooked Washington:
“Like I said, I think early in the game, we knew we could score on them. It’s just one of those things where I think we said, ‘We can score more points than this team.’ It ended up not happening. They were able to get a flow, get a rhythm. And a team with confidence … I don’t care who you’re playing against in the NBA. Any team that has some confidence and some rhythm has the chance to beat you. Tonight, we had to learn that the hard way.”
Could Tuesday’s outcome be yet another wake-up call? Here’s Harris:
“Obviously we’ve been having really good games with good flow. But we also have to have consistent play each and every night — what we can hang our hats on, what works for us. In those eight games, it’s been aggressive defensive and being able to get stops. And then offensively, moving the basketball and finding easy buckets. Tonight, I don’t think we got enough of either of those, really.”
Dropping one game to Washington following an eight-game winning streak isn’t a five-alarm fire. But the slow starts are definitely a concerning pattern we’ve seen crop up throughout the season. When the playoffs roll around and the opposition is not at a clear talent disadvantage, the Sixers will have to consistently bring their ‘A’ game each and every night from the opening tip. Let’s iron out this bad habit now, Sixers.