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December 15, 2021

Instant observations: Zone defense flummoxes Sixers in loss to Heat

The Sixers lost a game-long battle against zone defense in their meeting with Miami, losing 101-96 at home in a game they will almost immediately want to have back.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Tyrese Maxey has been one of the only people consistently injecting fun into this Sixers season, so it felt fitting that his personal scoring run in the second quarter is what brought Philadelphia back to life after a miserable start. In need of a shot in the arm, the Sixers got exactly that from No. 0, who killed the Heat from all over the floor as Philadelphia made a run to make it interesting again.

The thing that separated Maxey from every other guy on the roster is the sense of urgency that he played with when the Sixers were on offense. Rather than dawdling around and waiting for something to happen, Maxey made his best effort to be the first guy moving on any given possession, exploding hard toward the basket when he caught a swing pass to shake things up and generate some downhill momentum. It helped that the Sixers finally started to try to exploit his speed advantage as the game wore on, sending ball screens in Maxey's direction to buy him separation and part the sea as he drove toward the basket.

From a long-term perspective, Maxey's first-half performance was perhaps even more important, with the second-year guard one of the only guys who looked comfortable against zone as a shooter. Passing up open looks has been a problem for him at times throughout his time in the league, and though he wasn't perfect against the Heat, seeing a couple go down early brought out his inner gunner, and the Sixers have to find a way to channel that moving forward, because it'd be better to live with a quick-trigger Maxey than watch possessions crumble into dust because of relentless side-to-side passing.

This kid has been one of the only reasons worth tuning in half of the time this year. Whether he's a long-term answer at the point or not, he deserves his kudos for showing composure in unique situations like a zone-heavy game, because his older teammates who should know better are the ones who frequently struggle in those situations.

• Danny Green could not buy one on offense, but he was a huge part of turning this game around in the second half, disrupting just about everything the Heat wanted to do on offense. He slithered around screens, offered weakside rim protection, broke up pass attempts, and was a gigantic pain in the ass from the third quarter onward. On a night where they needed a boost of chaos to get back into the game, Green was chaos personified, right down to the up-and-down night on the other end.

But as he slowed down on defense, Green finally found the rhythm from deep, hitting a couple of shots they absolutely needed to have when it mattered down the stretch. When Tobias Harris kicked the ball to Green instead of Seth Curry during a three-on-one in transition, it looked like a recipe for disappointment and some further scrutiny after the game, but Green rewarded Harris and brought the Sixers within four, and it was at that moment it finally felt like the building believed they could come all the way back.

• When the Sixers actually managed to get the ball to Joel Embiid in the center of Miami's zone, I thought he was one of the few guys who handled his responsibility well. He invited pressure toward him, focused on simple moves in the post, and then fired the ball out to shooters as soon as the Heat were overextended, creating good opportunities for Philly shooters even when he wasn't the guy getting the assist.

(In fact, I thought there were at least a couple of plays where Embiid should have had no-doubt assists that were left on the table by his guys. Maxey fumbled a pass Embiid hit him with as he was cutting on the baseline, for example, that would have been an easy layup otherwise. Embiid's vision in this one was pretty damn good.)

When he was engaged on defense (a subject we'll get to further below), Embiid made life hell for Miami around the rim. But on some level, the style Miami played on defense for most of the night was a reflection of their respect for Embiid specifically. The Heat were determined to let anybody but the big man beat them, and they minimized his impact effectively, even if the Sixers are to blame for some of that.

The Bad

• Before we make our assessments below, let's say this — you absolutely can't lose that game to that version of the Heat. Inexcusable. This is a game the Sixers will regret. 

• Zone has been a thorn in Philadelphia's side for a long time, mostly against Miami, a franchise notorious for playing a heavy percentage of it on defense. And with the Heat turning to zone starting on the very first possession of the game, it took a long time for the Sixers to figure out how to attack it, allowing Miami to dictate the terms of the game and junk up an offense that hasn't been working particularly well even in ideal circumstances.

The most casual basketball fan would be able to point out that part of the problem is due to lineups. Matisse Thybulle continues to get ignored by opposing defenses, and if an ideal end to a possession against zone defense is an open three, you can't have guys on the floor who the other team is going to safely ignore because they're bad shooters. But there Thybulle was, sitting in one of the corners and either attempting a wide-open miss or trying to find a shot for somebody who might actually make a shot. When you have to work hard to find the open man in the first place, it's dispiriting for it to end up in the hands of the guy you don't want shooting it.

And to be clear, Thybulle is not the guy who deserves blame here. This is who he is, who he has been, and probably who he will continue to be as a player. At his best, he can still disrupt an opponent's gameplan at the other end enough to justify his inclusion in the lineup. But this was a game that screamed for somebody else to get those minutes, and Doc Rivers just kept throwing him out there with no thought for an alternative, predictable results piling up in the wake of that choice.

That's too much blame to place on Thybulle by himself, though. Frankly, this Sixers group opened the game as if they were totally unprepared to go up against zone defense, which is inexcusable given the opponent's historic tendencies. It is certainly more difficult to get downhill and play north/south against zone, but you can't abandon the concept altogether, which is what the Sixers did during their worst possessions against Miami's zone.

It took Philly around a quarter-and-a-half to get over the shellshock and actually start running zone offense, and by that time, Miami had built a comfortable lead, forcing the Sixers to scratch and claw for most of the night in a game they should have won with ease. Doc Rivers usually claims the Sixers are a good zone offense team overall when he's posed questions about struggles against it, and that has been true at times. But even if we concede that this is a team with a lot of offensive holes, they are more than capable of moving the ball, going inside out through Embiid, and making open threes. 

• While we are on the subject of coaching, the switch from Brett Brown to Doc Rivers was supposed to be (in many ways) about getting a guy who could pull them out of performances like this. And after the Sixers faceplanted in slightly more understandable circumstances on Monday night, you would think he'd have the group playing with a greater sense of urgency against the Heat.

Bad news: the coach not only didn't pull them out of their problems, he was one of the people actually feeding into them. Once he finally made the switch, the game opened up for the Sixers. Who would have thought?

• Tobias Harris air balling a runner that was unchallenged with about five minutes left in the game was, uh, something. 

Broadly speaking, this is one of those games that featured such a perfect 50/50 split of good and bad from him that it's hard to fairly characterize his night. Harris hit some absolutely massive shots late in this game, and his willingness to take catch-and-shoot threes was appreciated when he stepped up and took the challenge. But then there were plays like that missed runner, the charge he was called for when the game was tied 96-96, and some ugly takes in transition, and you almost scratch your head at how he scored a relatively efficient 24 points. 

• Some nights, Andre Drummond is a physical force who helps the Sixers win games with his work on the offensive glass. Wednesday night, he got absolutely worked by Omer Yurtseven in the first half, beaten at his own game and visibly off the plot of this one.

The Sixers simply can't afford for Drummond to come off of the bench with lackadaisical effort, because they don't have the surrounding talent or lineup structures to work around that problem. His passing should be beneficial at the center of zone defense, but he wasn't even useful there, mostly just standing around waiting for something to happen. Philadelphia's bench offense is basically all lateral as it is, and if Drummond isn't actively coming to the ball and trying to carve a team like Miami up for sitting in the zone, he serves no purpose on the floor.

• I love me some Paul Reed, but this game was a great example of the difficult path in front of him. If you can't trust him to play center, he has to be able to make threes, and if you can't trust him to make threes, he has to be able to play center. Both paths feel equally unlikely at the moment, and with the Sixers trying to get him minutes at forward on Wednesday night, Reed's lack of a jumper was glaring with Miami sitting in a zone for a lot of the game.

The Ugly

• It doesn't matter how many opportunities you get to play undermanned teams if you show up for a game with no visible interest in the game. The Sixers had schematic and systemic problems against Miami, certainly, but they also visibly did not really give a damn about this game, and they were outpaced early by a team that was at least ready to play hard, the bare minimum you need to do as professionals.

There were times in this game where Joel Embiid was let down by teammates after sealing someone off and creating a potential attacking window, but he visibly appeared not to give a shit on defense at various points throughout the game. There were several possessions where Embiid was left standing flatfooted with Dewayne Dedmon or other Heat players cutting directly behind him for baskets at the rim.

That being said, a team that doesn't want its big man to check out of the game actually has to make attempts to get him the ball on offense, and Philadelphia's bogus, side-to-side offense against Miami rarely got the ball to their moneymaker inside the arc. It doesn't excuse Embiid for drifting through defensive possessions and getting beat down the floor, but it's a tale as old as time. If you don't feed the big dude at least sometimes, you're not going to get his best on the other end. And Embiid didn't get a shot in the third quarter until he called his own number late in the period on a transition three.

This team is not good enough to come into a game with a lack of focus and expect to just roll to easy wins. And with a back-to-back looming, even a back to back against a decimated Nets team, this is a night where they really would have benefitted from blowing it open early.

• It's been a while since I've had to bust out my tried and true "Zone is for cowards" take, and I get that Miami was missing most of their rotation, but I had to roll my eyes when they came out playing zone on the opening possession. Just because they play it a lot relative to the rest of the league doesn't mean I have to like it!

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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