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March 10, 2019

Five Star Review: Sixers' second half defense vs. Indiana is a blueprint for playoffs

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031119-JoelEmbiid-MikeScott-USAToday Eric Hartline/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) and forward Mike Scott (1) celebrate during the fourth quarter against the Indiana Pacers at Wells Fargo Center.

Everybody likes awards and shiny things. Five Star Review is our way of catering to that urge, spotlighting key sequences and performances, in-game oddities, puzzling quotes, and everything in between from each Sixers game. This space offers a chance to reflect further on observations from the night before using video, quotes, and good old-fashioned logic.

You should all know how a five-star scale works: a five-star performance is the best of the best, a one-star performance is the worst of the worst. Mistakes take precedent in defeat, excellence takes precedent in a victory. You get the picture and are encouraged to submit your own set of stars in the comment section below.

Today's game: a massive win over the Indiana Pacers that pushed Philadelphia into the No. 3 slot in the East.  

Sixers' third-quarter defense

In the first half, the Sixers looked like a team without a plan and without any hope of doing damage in the playoffs. Joel Embiid's rust combined with sloppiness everywhere else gave the Pacers a nice cushion heading into halftime, and that seemed like it may be enough for Indiana and their elite defense to get a victory.

But Philadelphia flipped the script in the second half, completely swallowing the Pacers' offense in the final 24 minutes. Indiana scored just 11 points in the third quarter, and that period flipped the game and led to a comfortable win for the home team.

"Imposing our will, that was the biggest thing," Tobias Harris said after the game. "We let them continue to shoot midrange jumpers in the third quarter, and we were going to live with those."

The Sixers have come under fire in recent weeks for the switch-heavy scheme they employ on defense. I think those complaints are overblown for several reasons — a majority of the league is focused on switching nowadays, and a lot of their breakdowns are a product of newness together — but mostly because switches are still helping them away from the ball even when they're not designed to happen on ball.

On this play, for example, Tobias Harris fights through a screen from Thaddeus Young to help steer Bojan Bogdanovic toward Amir Johnson behind him. But if you follow James Ennis on this play, it's his communication with Ben Simmons that puts him in position to grab a steal.


If the Sixers don't switch there, Simmons' eyes have to track Matthews as he follows him out toward the top of the arc and he's probably not in a position to make a play. The switch simplifies the read for Ennis, which allows him to break on the pass and turn it into a fast break.

The Sixers were elite on defense with both Embiid and Amir Johnson at center on Sunday, and while individual effort played a part in that, it was primarily about communication and maintaining defensive integrity all over the floor.

Joel Embiid navigating through foul trouble

Embiid had three fouls with 10-plus minutes to go in the second quarter, and he looked much like he did during his rookie season in the first half — overzealous and overeager to make an impact. Rather than pulling back on his franchise big man, Brett Brown empowered him and asked him to play more minutes without fouling.

As Brown explained Sunday evening, that decision was about little else aside from trust in the big man, and he noted that the team is more concerned about Embiid picking up charges than they are with him avoiding fouls on defense. So it must be noted that Embiid was unbelievable at taking it right at the heart of Indiana's defense without putting himself in danger of fouling out.

This wasn't always filled with highlight reel material, of course. There was a play late in the third quarter where Embiid looked to be heading for a certain charge of Young and his fifth foul, only for the big man to stop short and miss a harmless runner in the painted area.


These sort of plays get lost in the grand scheme of things, but sometimes you need to live to fight another day. Part of Embiid's maturation process has been learning how to impose his will on a game physically without playing out of control. 

Ben Simmons' urgency to close the first half

There is often no substitute for a little urgency on the court. Ben Simmons showed plenty of that with the game on the verge of slipping away in the first half on Sunday.

Simmons was involved on almost every score for Philadelphia in the final five minutes of the first half, spending time as a screener, a playmaker, and of course as a force in transition. It was that last bit that stood out most of all — everyone knows Simmons can fly on a fast break, but he made it a point to attack the rim with force instead of waiting for his teammates in transition.


The Sixers need him to be able to do both as the point guard. But he's more dangerous when teams fear him as an attacker, and sometimes they need that jolt of energy to wake up the team and crowd.

Increased toughness from the bench

Mike Scott and James Ennis were the unsung heroes of Sunday's game. Neither one put up numbers that will blow you away, but they showed the importance of having players who will do the dirty work on a team filled with stars.

Scott has had some high-profile gaffes during his early days in Philadelphia, but he seems right at home in this city from an attitude perspective. The Sixers were booed off the floor heading into a timeout in the first half on Sunday, and after the game Scott says he embraces the response you get playing in Philly.

"They're loud, they're intense, they give us love when we need it. If we're playing like ass, they boo us," Scott said. "It keeps you humble. I don't like to sugarcoat it. When you play bad, you're playing bad and you need to hear it sometimes. Maybe a slap on the wrist and [you] get right. And then when you're playing good, they're loud as hell."

Both guys come up with "blue-collar" plays, whether that's digging for a loose ball in traffic, fighting hard on defense, or flying through the air for an offensive rebound. They add size and grit to Philadelphia's bench unit, and it should surprise no one that they were a combined +29 in 43 minutes on Sunday.

The officiating 

The refs were horrendous. We shouldn't have to talk about them so much, yet this trend has continued all season. Let's hope they're saving their best for the playoffs.


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