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February 05, 2021

The defensive battles to watch in Sixers vs. Nets on Saturday night

Just 23 games into their season, the Sixers have had few opportunities to test themselves against the best of the best around the league. Injuries and COVID protocols have altered another marquee matchup for Philadelphia, but the Sixers will nonetheless welcome at least a star or two to town when they do battle with Brooklyn on Saturday night.

Viewed as a potential second-round or conference finals preview by many (and that will all depend on how the standings shake out down the road), it is a fascinating clash of styles that pits a perimeter-centric, offensive juggernaut against a bruising, defensive-focused team in which both sides will try to impose their wills.

Keeping in mind that the Nets may be without at least two of their three stars on Saturday, here's what I'm watching for in a best-case scenario game.

How do the Nets defend Joel Embiid?

In what is quickly becoming a recurring theme as we move through top Eastern Conference battles, there is little standing in Embiid's way during a matchup against the Nets. If the Sixers are going to beat the Nets in a regular-season game or a playoff series, they need Embiid to go nuclear. That's not exactly outside the realm of possibility.

Brooklyn is a team of extremes on both sides of the ball. In the games where they've had Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving available and playing, they have simultaneously put up numbers befitting the best offensive team of all-time and the worst defensive team of all-time. It's intuitive looking at their personnel, with Durant the only guy firmly in the "good" category on defense (though Harden's reputation has lagged behind his progress there over the years). 

There are few teams in the league as ill-equipped to prevent scoring at the rim as the Nets are. Brooklyn currently ranks 28th in the league in opponent points in the paint per game, giving up 50.6 points around the basket every night. The only teams worse are the Minnesota Timberwolves, who are truly horrific and have been missing Karl-Anthony Towns in the middle, and the Sacramento Kings, the worst defensive team in the league so far this season.

Brooklyn is also uniquely unequipped to close out possessions on the defensive glass, ranking dead last in opponent second-chance points per game. They do not have a big man who can clean up the volume of dribble penetration allowed from the perimeter, 

Broadly speaking, Embiid has eaten DeAndre Jordan alive when he has been up against him during his career. In six career matchups with Jordan (including Philadelphia's clunker loss early this season), Embiid has averages of 28.5 points and 14.3 rebounds per game, with Philadelphia 5-1 in those games. Their first-ever matchup was a bloodbath, with Embiid going for 32 and 16 and causing Jordan to foul out in just 30 minutes of action. Jordan's lack of discipline was front and center all game, with Embiid punking him with a punk fake for one of his great career highlights.

The Sixers should know going in, however, that just dumping Embiid the ball in the post would be letting Jordan (and the Nets) off of the hook. Brooklyn's major issue is an inability to stop dribble penetration, not big men, and forcing Jordan to make decisions and defend in space is the path to scoring for Embiid and his teammates. 

In previous seasons, this might have been a concern. Embiid has had a tendency to let poor defenders off of the hook by allowing them to do the few things they're good at (most often defending the post). He has proven more flexible this season, in part because of improvements to his fitness, changes to scheme, and improved guard play/spacing around him. The "Delay" looks he has taken to should make life hell for Jordan, as will plays where he has to defend two possibilities in pick-and-rolls. He has had some adventures defending Embiid in space in the past.

Brooklyn's idea of reinforcement behind Jordan was a deal for Norvel Pelle, the big man who provided some exciting moments in Philadelphia but ultimately is drawing dead in a matchup against Embiid. The MVP candidate not only has a severe size advantage, he has the knowledge of Pelle's tendencies from practicing with him last season, and should be able to exploit his jumpiness for free throws or easy buckets.

The only real mystery is whether Brooklyn decides to send hard doubles at Embiid or play him straight up. In the first meeting between the teams, Brooklyn was not overly aggressive sending help toward Embiid, and it ended up working in their favor in a surprise Nets victory. But that was a uniquely bad loss and performance from a lot of guys on the roster, and it doesn't seem as though that will hold up in this go-around. 

How do the Sixers defend Brooklyn's big three?

Before Philadelphia's matchup with the Lakers, we talked a lot about how the Sixers might match up with L.A.'s imposing frontline. It ended up being a pretty straightforward chess match — the Sixers initially tried to guard L.A. straight up and then switched to cross matches (like Tobias Harris on Marc Gasol) in order to get their preferred defenders on L.A.'s two top options.

They will not have the same luxury in this matchup, at least when all three Brooklyn stars are available. Fortunately for Philadelphia, one has already been removed from consideration for Saturday night — Kyrie Irving was ruled out early on Saturday afternoon, while Kevin Durant remains questionable due to the health and safety protocol shenanigans that had him removed from Brooklyn's loss to Toronto on Friday night. At best, we'll see a Brooklyn team with only two of their big three available, which eases the burden on the Sixers' perimeter defense.

Even if the Sixers only have to deal with Durant and Harden, it stresses their defense in a way they haven't really had to deal with all year, unless you consider the Jaylen Brown/Kemba Walker combo on that level (and with Walker returning from injury when Philly played the Celtics, I certainly don't). 

If you're just trying to line up your best perimeter defender on their best perimeter player, the easy choice is to stick Ben Simmons on Kevin Durant and hope you can slow him down. But that could end up being a losing battle, with Durant locked in and capable of going off no matter who is guarding him. And all the while, James Harden gets to go up against the likes of Tobias Harris or Danny Green. This problem will be amplified down the road when the Sixers have to guard Brooklyn with all three stars available, when Kyrie Irving will likely get to attack Green throughout the game. Green is a good team defender, but that's a brutal assignment for him.

Conventional wisdom says you should just stick Simmons on Durant because he's their best player. Durant's shots come on a wider variety of actions — catches in the mid-post, off-ball cuts, catch-and-shoot attempts, both sides of the pick-and-pop — which makes him a remarkably tough assignment for any defender. But I think there's actually a decent case to have Harris guard him and for Simmons to take Harden while the stakes are still relatively low, to see what Philly can learn about those matchups.

Since joining Brooklyn, Harden has basically been the team's de facto point guard, sacrificing scoring in order to play-make for their talented cast (his 12 assists per game over that 10 game stretch would be a career-high if it held up for a full season). His style of attacking is mostly the same as it was in Houston, with Harden's game predicated on pull-up threes and drives to the basket, where he hopes to either score, get fouled, or collapse the defense to play-make. The latter is arguably the most dangerous weapon in his toolkit — the Nets attempt nearly 11.5 threes per game on passes from Harden and shoot 45.6 percent from three on those passes, according to NBA tracking data. For perspective, those numbers are superior (if only slightly) in both volume and efficiency compared to what Simmons provides as a passer for Philly. 

Preventing dribble penetration from Harden, then, is essential to stopping Brooklyn. And with Harden remaining the league's isolation king in Brooklyn — he averages 6.1 isolation possessions per game compared to 3.5 for Durant — there are more possessions where you will simply be left on an island to defend Harden. Simmons is the most trustworthy guy to prevent that penetration and hold up in isolation by a mile for Philadelphia.

On the other side of it, Harris may not be anyone's idea of an All-NBA defender, but there are pieces of Durant's game he can defend semi-credibly. Harris has had success slowing down taller/longer players in the mid-post area, including in the recent win over the Lakers that featured some excellent stops of Anthony Davis in the second half. Durant is a less devastating playmaker as the handler in pick-and-rolls, which should allow Joel Embiid to help Harris more in those looks than he can with Harden running the set, who would turn an inch of daylight into a lob to Brooklyn's bigs.

There's also a little something to be said for the mental side of this, with Simmons fully aware he was in jeopardy of being shipped out for Harden before the Rockets pulled the trigger on the Brooklyn deal. I think the "extra motivation" factor is often overrated for Simmons on offense, where he tends to just play his game regardless, but do not discount the effect it could have on his defense if he is asked to check Harden.

Ultimately, we may not be fortunate enough to see this play out Saturday, and at this point, I'm just hoping we can get at least one or two matchups between fully healthy versions of these teams at some point this season. 

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