December 20, 2019
There have been an abundance of issues in Philadelphia over the last week. The Sixers have shriveled against zone defenses, let it bleed into their defense, and have destroyed any good vibes the team had created with a strong run in the weeks prior.
Joel Embiid, who dominated the Mavericks on the low block on Friday night, had a different nit to pick when he spoke to reporters on Friday night.
"I feel like especially tonight we were playing scared," Embiid said. "Basketball is easy, you just shoot it, pass it, move it, if you don’t got a shot just pass it."
"I felt like tonight we had a few open looks, you just got to shoot it...[I've had] a lot of people telling [me] to be aggressive and all that, and obviously you don’t want to be selfish, but at the end of the day if you got to make something happen, you got to, especially if you feel like you have a look. In those situations if you’re wide open, or if you’re open, just shoot it. We’re going to get an offensive rebound or we’re going to make something happen."
That was the theme of the postgame for Philadelphia, who suddenly looks short on answers after staring down zone defense in back-to-back games.
The Sixers made some adjustments to their zone offense within the Miami game, sticking Embiid at the top of the zone and avoiding becoming paralyzed by the extra bodies near the paint. That switch paid off in a second-half push that nearly won Philadelphia the game on Wednesday night, and though his teammates were paralyzed by indecisiveness against the Mavericks, Embiid poured in 33 points, 17 rebounds, and turned the ball over just once while going against a Dallas front line lacking in beef.
If you're the sort of person who wants to read between the lines, consider Embiid's thoughts on the area of the floor where he occupied in their initial setup vs. where he ended up against Dallas.
"We made a big adjustment by putting me at the top of the zone [against Miami]. Tonight we did the same thing, and I felt comfortable," Embiid said. "Being stuck on the baseline, you really have no purpose. I feel like you basically are playing 4-on-5, so we made an adjustment in that second half and tonight that's the way we've got to play."
The Sixers have a guy who spends a lot of his time on the baseline: Ben Simmons, who turned in another relatively anonymous performance on Friday night. With Embiid occupying that space at the top of the zone, it relegated Simmons to his real estate in the dunker's spot, allowing Dallas to send help defense even when they weren't sitting back in the zone.
Embiid's comments did not come off as aimed at Simmons (or anyone else for that matter), rather as a reflection of his own feelings about lingering in that spot. But it highlights the major fit issues the team has to overcome. To put Simmons at the top of the zone and take advantage of his passing, Embiid has to be put in a place where he feels useless. The arrangements with this group always come with some sort of downside.
And these two weren't even the real problem against Dallas. Take a gander at the combined three-point shooting from Al Horford (1/4 ), Tobias Harris (0/4), Mike Scott (1/3), and James Ennis (1/5), and you have the story of how an NBA team can't put together a competent response to a zone defense. And those are supposed to be their good shooters.
Philadelphia has compounded the issue by turning in maddening stretches of "defense" where their effort drops and the collective suffers. Brown offered a troubling assessment of the zone's impact on the team, believing it has interfered with their mental state:
"To be put on our backheels against the zone has crept into our defense, our psyche, our spirit. And I can't stand it," Brown said. "It's not who we are... and I think that anytime you get into a mood swing that affects your defense because your offense is doing something, it needs to be addressed...we can never forget, our bread is buttered through our defense. And we have gone away from some of that lately. I think our spirit, our competitive spirit's taken too deep of a dent for me because of some of the problems that we have had scoring. And that's not good enough."
"We have laid eggs. We have not played with a competitive drive that reflects this team. It's not, at all, how I see the world. That's part of the journey. It's a long season. We certainly are in a stage where we have to get better at playing against a zone. And I think that that is a source of some of the angst that I'm feeling creep into our defensive world and our defensive mindset."
"Defensively, there were just too many blown coverages," Horford added. "The five of us not being connected enough every time. Sometimes it was three guys in the right place or two guys, it's just not...it felt very isolated out there."
The Sixers entered the week with one of the league's best offenses against zone defense, and they have ended it with things coming apart at the seams at both ends because of their inability to deal with it in large spurts.
But Embiid, who is never shy about speaking his mind, stopped short of playing the blame game. His assertion, in fact, is that Philadelphia's problems stem from not following the instructions that has been laid out for them by the coaching staff.
"We're not following the game plan. Like, tonight, let's say, Tim Hardaway, we had him as a hot guy, so we've got to just do a better job of following the game plan," Embiid said. "At the end of the day, I feel like it's not on the coaches. We've got to play with energy. [Hardaway] obviously made seven 3s. Going into a game, if you know that a guy is a shooter, you should not give him any space, so we have to do a better job of respecting what we are supposed to do, and just be aggressive."
There is no rest for the wicked. The Sixers suit up again on Saturday night, facing a Wizards team who made them pay for not showing up in their last meeting. Washington will score, and you can bet they will prepare to play some more zone, given the last few days the Sixers have had.
We'll find out how big of a dent their psyche has actually taken.
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