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May 04, 2022

Sixers vs. Heat Game 2 notebook: Rebounding and spacing are top Philly priorities

Sixers NBA
James-Harden-Sixers-NBA-Playoffs-05022022-UST Sam Navarro/USA Today Sports

James Harden attempts to drive against P.J. Tucker.

What good is a zone defense that leads to missed shots if you can't collect the rebounds that come off of those misses? That's one of the questions the Sixers need to answer in Game 2 on Wednesday night, because if they can successfully finish the possessions where they sit in a 2-3, they'll move closer to snagging an important road victory in Miami.

The good, as Derek Bodner of The Daily Six noted on Wednesday afternoon — Miami shot 8/30 on 36 possessions with the Sixers playing zone defense. Sustained across a full game, that would be several levels beyond good enough to win the game, the Heat posting an early 2000s final score that the Sixers would have to actively try not to beat. But there's a catch. Miami also collected 12 offensive rebounds on those possessions, nullifying any success Philadelphia could claim.

Rebounding has been a Philadelphia problem all season, and playing zone amplifies that.

"It's a little bit harder to rebound in a zone because you're covering an area, not so much a guy," Shake Milton said at shootaround Wednesday. "For us it's just about knowing who is in your area, making sure you're putting a body on him and hitting him, and then going and getting the board. It's a group effort."

"We play a lot of zone, and then we go switch to man, and it's not as easy as what it looks like...it's just about knowing who's in your area and then crashing. Especially the guys on offense who are getting back, we gotta come back and help the big guys fight for a rebound."

The cost of playing zone in any sport is the possibility of the opponent simply finding the space in between two guys and running through unchecked. It's why the merits of zonal marking in soccer was hotly debated for a long time, and why a good tight end to work the seams can punish a team using Tampa 2 coverage on the gridiron.

The Sixers have not been a zone team historically, though they've played it more regularly this season, driven in part by the talents (or lack thereof) of the perimeter guys on their roster. Against Miami, a zone feels like a dangerous gambit depending on the lineup they put on the floor — the Heat were the league's most accurate team from long-range during the regular season, so funneling those shots to the "right" guys is another critical piece of the strategy working.

In spite of Miami's offensive rebounding success vs. the zone on Monday, Doc Rivers says he believes they can correct their issues without having to abandon the look as a result of how Miami runs zone offense.

"They keep their five in on the zone, and that's why we think we can rebound out of it," Rivers said Monday. "It's not a zone offense where they're moving the five around and he's diving in, our five is pretty much matched up to their five. But it's the other guys, and you're right, they're diving in and we got to hit bodies."

One day after Georges Niang announced that he was going into the series prepared for a fight, saying he wanted to make sure he was the guy hitting someone and not the other way around, this is what happened to Philadelphia on the boards:

It's a reason to be skeptical not just of playing zone, but of Philadelphia's ability to play small in this series. Late in the first half, the Sixers had probably their best-sustained run of Game 1, which included a terrific defensive play from Niang on a Jimmy Butler drive to the basket. Consistently getting stops without a rim protector, let alone rebounding with a group of bad and smaller rebounders on the floor, is going to be a challenge to pull off.

That's if/when the Sixers try at all. Rivers was defiant in his postgame presser Monday about starting DeAndre Jordan, noting that it had support within the team and that outside noise did not matter to him. Danny Green has confirmed on multiple occasions the last two days that there's truth to that notion, including when Charles Barkley came on his podcast and proclaimed that Jordan should be, "sitting over there beside Doc Rivers and those guys" on the bench.

"I think we play him in spurts, I think DeAndre can be very effective," Green said on his Inside The Green Room podcast. "He just has to know the spacing. He has to be very active on the glass for us to give us a plus defensively, protect the rim and getting boards, and offensively, try to get putbacks or tip outs so we can get extra possessions. But we got to play him in spurts."

Rivers made note of an important task for Jordan and their other bigs while speaking on Tuesday, noting that they got stuck under the rim and compromised Philadelphia's spacing. Jordan, who spoke to reporters at shootaround Wednesday, made note of how he needs to position himself in order to make himself available to their guards on offense.

"We know who our scorers are going to be, it's not like we're giving me the ball and asking me to score points for us," Jordan said. "So I think on offense it's just about spacing, setting screens for James, Tyrese, Tobias whenever they need, whenever they want to have an iso or they like a matchup. And I'll space to the opposite dunker and try to give those guys a side of the floor."

(I do give credit to Jordan for this much — he has never been a guy who has any illusions about his skill set or what he's supposed to do on offense. There are no insane bounce passes through traffic, a la Andre Drummond. It's probably a big reason why he keeps getting chances for teams that want to compete, the coaches knowing that he will play the role that is expected and asked of him on offense.)

Frankly, Jordan also has to do some rebounding himself, even if Jordan's size gives them some natural advantages in team rebounding (namely in sealing off the area around the rim). Coming away with just two rebounds in 17 minutes isn't going to cut it.

The Sixers know what needs to get fixed. We will ultimately see if there are enough changes or improvements in execution for that knowledge to matter.

Quotables

Charles Barkley on DeAndre Jordan: "Let me tell you something, DeAndre needs to be sitting over there beside Doc Rivers and those guys. It’s over for DeAndre, he’s had a hell of a career, but he can’t play especially in today’s NBA. Today’s NBA, unless you can move, it’s very difficult for you."

Going on the podcast of a member of the Sixers' starting lineup to make this declaration is just hilarious. God bless Charles Barkley.

Georges Niang at Tuesday's media availability: "I don't have much for you guys today, just like yesterday."

Doc Rivers on Georges Niang's self-assessment: "Georges is hard on himself, and we're hard on Georges too."

You need to have some levity after bad games, and Niang and his coach both took a lighter approach to talking about his performance. It's the only way to get through the playoffs without losing your mind, I think.

Injury report

MIAMI: Kyle Lowry, OUT (left hamstring strain); Tyler Herro, QUESTIONABLE (left ankle sprain); Caleb Martin, QUESTIONABLE (left ankle sprain); Max Strus, QUESTIONABLE (right hamstring strain); PJ Tucker, QUESTIONABLE (right calf strain); Gabe Vincent, QUESTIONABLE (right knee irritation)

PHILADELPHIA: Joel Embiid, OUT (facial fracture/concussion)  

The two big absences remain the same for Game 2, with the obvious caveat that Embiid's absence is the more important of the two. Lowry, as I tried to communicate prior to Game 1, is a big loss. But the Sixers trying to make due without their best player is a completely different beast in the playoffs despite Philly showing some spunk in those situations during the regular season.

On the Embiid front, we'll likely know more about his status within the next 24 hours, as the series heads back to Philly and he becomes a real threat to play. At a session with reporters on Tuesday, Doc Rivers tried to straddle the line between hope and caution.

"I know he did something yesterday, but not much, and I know he's feeling a lot better," Rivers said Tuesday morning. "I don't want to give false hope either, so I'll just stop there."

Today's officials

Crew chief: Zach Zarba

Referee: Josh Tiven

Umpire: Tom Washington

Zarba is good. #Analysis. 


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