There was a spirited bit of 1-on-1 play happening at the Sixers practice facility Thursday. A group featuring Joel Embiid, P.J. Tucker, Paul Reed, and Jaden Springer took turns squaring off.
At one point it was Tucker defending Embiid. The 6-foot-5 wily veteran attempted to take a charge on the 7-footer, which prompted Embiid to yell, “Stop flopping in practice!” It was a fun, competitive moment that the media is not always privy to these days.
Of course it was just nice for the Sixers to practice back in Camden again in general. Coming off an ugly road trip and dealing with a slew of injuries, the Sixers were actually able to have live sessions in practice with 10 players healthy enough to participate.
A heavy focus for the team is defensive rebounding. When facing two teams in Memphis and Houston that are aggressive crashing the offensive glass the Sixers struggled mightily. They allowed 31 offensive rebounds over two games against the Grizzlies and Rockets.
And this is not a new issue. In fact, it’s part of the reason Tucker is here. He averaged 2.3 three offensive rebounds a game in helping the Heat beat the Sixers in six games. As you’ll recall Embiid specifically mentioned Tucker as the type of physical and tough player the Sixers needed to get over the hump and make it past the second round.
So, Tucker’s response to the rebounding questions from Wednesday should come as no surprise. Tobias Harris, a player that’s become one of the Sixers’ obvious leaders, echoed that sentiment Thursday.
“For us, I think that was more of an effort thing on everybody’s part, including myself,” Harris said. “We’ve got to be more physical. We’ve got to hit first. We’re allowing teams to have too many open lanes and get by us, get downhill. I think that’s creating more over-help situations that are leading to more straight-line drives and things of that nature. … We have to do a better job there, for sure.”
Be tougher, more physical. Sounds simple enough.
But Doc Rivers pushed back a little on that notion, while agreeing with Harris that dribble penetration is part of the problem.
Outside of Embiid, the Sixers don’t have a player on the roster taller than 6-foot-9 (and that’s Paul Reed, who has seemingly taken over the backup center spot). So, when Embiid is forced to contest shots at the rim, it leaves a smaller player in charge of boxing out a behemoth like Steven Adams.
“Those two games were obvious,” Rivers said. “I will say the one game — Joel and everybody — no way Steven Adams should do what he did. Having said that, if you watch the tape, the reason Joel was not on Steven Adams — or Paul Reed (wasn’t), or all of us — was because they were always helping (on) the driver. You watch the Houston game, the driver’s in the paint, the bigs go to help, they go to shoot.
“Even with us boxing out, that’s a guard trying to block out a 7-footer. … When we’re good defensively, we’re keeping the ball out of the paint. And for two days, that’s all we drilled. Ball out of the paint, we rebound. Ball in the paint, it makes rebounding harder.”
Changes in coverage also can affect rebounding. Embiid and the coaching staff have mixed coverages at times to confuse offenses and also utilize Embiid’s versatility without over extending him. While blitzing or meeting ball handlers at the level of the screen can pull Embiid from the basket, it could also keep the big from rolling to the rim and keep the ball out of the paint in general.
As with most things it feels like the Sixers’ rebounding issues could be a bit of both. Does Embiid being forced to challenge guards in the paint leave the opposing big in a favorable position to grab offensive rebounds? Yes. Could the Sixers do a better job of boxing out opposing bigs and other players in general? Yes.
At this point of the season, the Sixers are the fifth-worst defensive rebounding team in the NBA. The good news is that after facing the Grizzlies and Rockets (who rank first and second in offensive rebounds per game) five of the seven teams they play on this homestand rank in the bottom half of the league, including the Lakers on Friday
Whether it’s Tucker’s brand of physicality trickling down to the rest of the team or Embiid being pulled away from the basket less, it’s a good time for the Sixers to clean up their issues on the glass.