January 27, 2018
The last time the Sixers won a game in San Antonio, they were powered by the dynamic scoring talents of Eric Snow and Derrick Coleman. That alone should tell you how special Philadelphia's 97-78 win was on Friday night, but even if you weren't aware of the trivia, it was clear this was no run-of-the-mill performance on the road.
The NBA's third-best defense — yes, that is a description of the boys from Philly — kicked San Antonio's butt up and down the court from the moment it stepped on the floor. And while their success on that end of the court often comes down to just having Joel Embiid on the floor, they have finally reached that point in the season where everything is starting to click as a unit.
On nights like these you are reminded of the collective size Philadelphia can throw out there when they want to. There's Joel Embiid anchoring the backline at 7'2". He's flanked most often by Ben Simmons (6'10"), Dario Saric (6'10") and Robert Covington (6'9"), and with JJ Redick out of the lineup, the shortest guy in the starting lineup is Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (6'6"). They close hard, they recover fast, and even when they take a wrong step, they have the athleticism and size to recover.
Turnovers have been the Sixers' death knell all year, and one of the biggest reasons their turnovers are so killer are because they cut the legs out from their defense, which is the team's clear strength. When teams are able to get out in transition and attack them before they get all their pieces in place, the Sixers lose the one clear advantage they have against most opponents.
So it should come as no surprise that their best defensive performance of the season came on a night where they took care of the basketball. Philadelphia turned the ball over just nine times in San Antonio, and even that is probably a little inflated. Robert Covington was responsible for a few bad ones in the fourth quarter, showing some bench rust after dealing with foul trouble earlier in the game.
By keeping that number down, the Sixers were able to set up as a unit, but the individual talent of their defenders was also able to shine. When Embiid is on the back end cutting off lanes and cutting an imposing figure in the paint, it frees the guys in front of him to take risks. There were several instances when Sixers players reached in for steals and came up missing against San Antonio, but Embiid's size and foot speed on the back end ended the driving threat and forced passes back into crowded areas.
When other analysts make the case for players around the league being impactful "beyond the box score" compared to Embiid, it sells Philadelphia's phenom short on that end. He makes plays like these routinely, and the credit on the box score goes entirely to the guys around him. Yes, his numbers are gaudy and the advanced stats paint a picture of dominance. His impact just far exceeds what you can paint with the numbers.
Apart from Embiid, a lot of Philadelphia's defensive plays are more athleticism and effort than instinct right now. That's okay because the latter can come from more time spent in the film room and years spent gaining professional basketball experience. You can teach that part, to an extent.
What you can't teach are plays like this, which are the product of Simmons simply being a freak athlete:
All of this comes together to help the Sixers form a legitimate identity and not one that is just a point of pride for a bad team. They are the third-best defense in basketball, and that's in spite of youth, health concerns and a giant cocktail of potential pitfalls. Brown felt every bit of that against his former boss and mentor.
"We have the luxury with our length that we switch a lot," said Brown. "I thought that our guys really played lower and slid their feet and showed their hands, and we kept the game in front of us. We really did a good job of not getting beat on the first dribble. Defensively, because we have that type of length, that if you can do that and keep the game in front of you, you really have a chance to be an elite defensive team."
One road game down, one to go. A back-to-back looms in the next few days, and Brown did not rule out Embiid's first appearance in one of those during his post-game presser on Friday. Things could start getting real, real quick in Philadelphia.
Bayless has been a punching bag for the fanbase this year, and the fairness of the animosity was not always there. He's a limited player, sure, but a useful one in the right context — or at least on the right night.
That said, his absence over the last week or so has given you a preview of what the Sixers look like when they lean toward putting more length and athleticism on the floor. It can't be discounted in their recent defensive surge, and should give Brown pause when he has to set the lineups in weeks to come.
It will certainly help if the guys who have taken the minutes in his absence continue to shoot well, because it's no contest in that case. TLC has been a revelation in a larger role, and Justin Anderson has given the Sixers quality minutes now that he's finally past the shin splint problem that was holding him out of action for weeks. Instead of a small combo guard playing backup wing minutes, the Sixers have two high-caliber athletes jumping into the mix, and it minimizes the drop-off from the starters to the bench unit when you can preserve that defensive edge.
The Sixers have gone a lot more switch-heavy lately, and being able to turn to Anderson off the bench helps a lot there. He can credibly defend or at least bother several different positions, so when teams put him in pick-and-rolls, the Sixers don't really get punished. When he's making the right reads — and your mileage may vary on that front — he has the foot speed and physicality to help the Sixers play lockdown defense.
If I'm building a team or trying to build a foundation, what I would want out of rotational pieces is to build upon the foundation already in place. Bayless adds some shooting and microwave scoring the Sixers don't have elsewhere at the moment, but it's too few and far between, and he doesn't mesh with the defensive base that propels them to victory most nights.
Brown will likely go back to the veteran for all the usual reasons a coach turns to an experienced guy in a bench role. To continue playing Anderson and TLC bigger minutes, the Sixers would have to live with some erratic play. But I think Brown should really consider what he's getting by putting Bayless back into the mix, because things are going quite alright at the moment.
On the flipside of that, there have been very few calls for Richaun Holmes to get more minutes lately. That is what happens when you win games, no doubt, but it's also a product of how the guy in front of him is playing.
I might be able to beat Johnson in a vertical leap contest — and I do not have what the kids call "bunnies" by any stretch of the imagination — but he just consistently makes the right plays on both ends of the court. He has been a +/- champion for years now, and watching him up close like we have this year, it all finally makes sense.
The focus with Johnson is usually on his defensive play, though that stuff is sort of obvious. What you might miss during an average Friday night watch of the Sixers, whether at home or at the bar in McGillin's, are the little ways he helps free up guys on offense. He's an excellent back-screener, which contributes to Philadelphia's increased success on cuts to the basket.
It helps that he has developed a rapport with his guys. There was a sequence I noted during the game that ended with a lob pass to Saric, and I wanted to go back and look to see how Johnson freed Saric for an open look at the basket. On rewatch, the sequence was a lot more symbiotic than I anticipated: Saric actually hooks onto Johnson as he's curling around him, and as Saric begins his release, Johnson bodies up on the defender chasing him. LaMarcus Aldridge had no chance from there.
The little plays like these, combined with dives to the floor, offensive rebounds and blocks at the rim add up to winning basketball. He's not always fun to watch play or providing you with beautiful basketball, but his minutes and role are earned.
Quietly, Simmons has had a dominant month of January. After fading in December and opening the door for, "Is the Rookie of the Year race wide open?!" Simmons has all but slammed it shut with his play this month.
Friday night's performance was the all-encompassing brilliance we got out of Simmons early and often in the beginning of the season, and he is trending much closer to that path than the down month he had in December. 21 points, five rebounds, seven assists, two steals and a block later, Simmons left San Antonio in a pile of smoldering ash.
It's easy to say "Simmons is being more aggressive!" but what does that actually mean in practice? He hasn't been a gunner, he's not going too far outside of his comfort zone and he's still not getting to the free-throw line as much as you'd like to see him do. Yes, he's making a more concerted effort to get to the basket, but I think some of that is just contextual. When Embiid isn't camping out on the low block all game, it's easier for him to do that.
What I can see from Simmons is a growing confidence in his jumper, win, lose or airball. The foul-line jumper is still not frequent enough for my liking, but when he's getting space he continues to let it fly.
He wears a lot of the blame when they lose, so he deserves the same amount of credit when they win. And when he was asked about breaking the franchise's losing streak in San Antonio and cutting down the turnovers, Simmons shrugged the notion off as if it was just another day in the life.
"That's the old Sixers. The old Sixers [didn't win here]. We got to come in with a new mentality and leave the past behind, and play the way we play," said Simmons. "We come to win, and play hard, and that's the end result for us: we want to win."
If playing the way they play includes Simmons dashing toward the rim with reckless abandon – and only missing one shot all night in the process — they'll be doing a lot more winning in opposing arenas in the months to come.