March 18, 2019
Building a defense in basketball starts with answering one simple question — what hill are you willing to die on? During the regular season, the answer to that question is a broad one, and in the modern NBA it usually means living with teams shooting mid-range shots. We don't often get to see strategies designed for specific teams before the playoffs.
A few days prior to the Sixers' clash with the Bucks on Sunday, Brett Brown told reporters ahead of time this would not be the case for this late-season showcase.
"You just go play to win. You do what you do, you play to win and don't overthink it," Brown said last Thursday at practice. "You'll see that you feel like you better be better at, offensively or defensively, and you're just going to walk away from that game learning more. But in relation to not running [a specific play] because they could see it, or we're not going to trap Giannis [Antetokounmpo] because they could better drill it, I'm not doing that. We're going to play to win."
Philadelphia's version of playing to win sounds a little strange on paper when you think about it. The Sixers stuck center Joel Embiid on Giannis for a lot of the game and dared the league's possible MVP to beat them individually. While most teams want to force the ball out of the hands of the opponent's best player, this strategy had the opposite effect, baiting Antetokounmpo into playing hero ball for a lot of the game.
With a former Spurs assistant coaching the team, Milwaukee's offensive philosophy is not all that different from Philadelphia's at the end of the day. They want to share the basketball and keep everyone involved. And so despite Giannis putting up video game numbers on Sunday, the Sixers were able to win the game within the game by turning it into Giannis vs. the Sixers instead of the Bucks vs. the Sixers.
When Embiid was covering Giannis on Sunday, the Bucks forward shot just 7/16 (or 43.8 percent) from the field, a number that doesn't seem that impressive until you note he has shot 58 percent from the field for the season. The Greek Freak is one of the league's best at-rim players — he takes almost 82 percent of his looks from within five feet, where he's shooting 72.7 percent this season — so that's an even bigger win for Philly with more context.
It was not hard to see why the Sixers stuck Embiid on Milwaukee's best player — when he tried to challenge Embiid at the summit, on or off the ball, the big man made him work for every inch:
Embiid's aggressive sagging eventually prompted Giannis to start letting jumpers go from deep, and he had a good day at the office from deep (3/8). Playing Giannis this way shook up Milwaukee's distribution chart, and the three-point line is where the game was won.
Antetokounmpo's usage soared over 39 percent on Sunday, seven points higher than a typical game this year. That cut into touches for Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Nikola Mirotic, Ersan Ilyasova, Pat Connaughton, George Hill, and Tony Snell, who all saw their usage dip under their averages for the season. Only Brook Lopez and role player D.J. Wilson went in the opposite direction.
In Philadelphia, the head coach and players alike have talked about the impact that sharing the basketball has on a team. Guys are engaged more when they get touches and are allowed to be part of the flow instead of just an accessory to a one-man band. Sixers forward James Ennis has been on both sides of this coin, having played alongside James Harden for most of this season.
"Everybody's happy at the end of the day here, everybody touches the ball," Ennis said at a practice last week. "It's a team sport, so if everyone shares the ball, everybody's energy is up. It makes the game easier for everybody else when you have people [making plays] for their teammates."
A cynic would point out that the Bucks shot just 32 percent from deep against the Sixers, and that some of those misses were open. I don't think it's entirely fair to go there without crediting the Sixers' three-point defense, which has been near the top of the league all season and was aided by their strategy against Milwaukee.
This is a possession where I think you can see good and bad instincts from Philly that ends up in a missed shot:
Butler should probably leave Embiid alone to contain Giannis' drive here, and Middleton had a fairly clean look early if he chose to take it. It's the final piece of the play that shows where the Sixers won the game — Giannis tries to exploit a bit of daylight in the corner after a reset, but Ben Simmons recovers and crowds Mirotic, who had a miserable 0/6 effort from deep against Philly.
When players are going long stretches of the game without being allowed to influence it, it shouldn't come as a surprise if they don't shoot the lights out when the ball swings their way. Milwaukee is not usually a team that falls into this trap — they play beautiful, unselfish basketball and afford Giannis space to do his thing while running team-centric sets that involve all their players, whether their MVP is on the floor or not:
Here's another gorgeous play the Bucks ran against the Pacers following a timeout. Even though Brogdon didn't connect, it was a money play. pic.twitter.com/pAH8Fh66GH— Bucks Film Room (@BucksFilmRoom) March 9, 2019
Compare a set like that to this possession from Sunday's game. Nobody touches the ball except for Giannis, who bricks a three after walking the ball down the floor after a Sixers miss:
That was representative of long stretches in the second half. Antetokounmpo used over 40 percent of his team's possessions when he was on the floor in the final 24 minutes, a gargantuan number for a team with a great supporting cast. He is one of the league's best talents, but he is not James Harden on offense, nor are the Bucks designed to play like Harden's Rockets.
(By the way, that Giannis shot looks a lot like Philly's worst possessions on Sunday, with Embiid filling that same role. I'm all for shooting open threes, but same principle applies to the big fella — you have to make sure you impose your will without alienating everyone else.)
The Sixers haven't quite figured out the tactical wrinkles they'll need in order to beat the Celtics or Raptors, who have had their number for years. But it appears they found a strategy that can work against the East's No. 1 seed, and that's a major victory for this group heading into the playoffs.
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