For awhile there, it looked like we were headed for a disappointing letdown on the second night of a back-to-back.
Then something clicked. The urgency appeared. The defense was ratcheted up a notch while Joel Embiid poured in 15 third quarter points and the Sixers executed smartly down the stretch for a professional, come from behind victory.
The old cliche is “learning how to win,” right? Young teams need to find ways to close out games. I think you’re seeing the team turn that corner right this very moment, with incredibly solid operation in the final four or five minutes of the game, going back five or six contests now.
In November or December, that’s probably a game they lose, another Phoenix or Sacramento.
But now they simply have more volume in that department, more reps, more experience playing close, 4th quarter games. I think much of the recent success can be attributed to the fact that Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have just logged more meaningful minutes in tight matchups, so I asked Brett Brown post-game if that was the case, that this team is “learning how to win.”
“I think there’s some of that. The older guys, JJ as an example, his sort of poise, it is true. And Ersan comes in there tonight with sort of a grounding effect and a poise, and that is true. But then you spin out of it and go to our two best players in Joel and Ben, and I see it in them. And I also see that there’s a tenacity, a sort of an internal clock – I don’t care what they see on the scoreboard – but, you know, (they know that) it’s time to go. It’s go time. Our defense, and the camaraderie I see them talking about, not just accepting scores, but (knowing) there’s a problem and they have to fix it. We don’t dust it off. I think on both sides of the ball those two guys have grown. Sure, JJ and Ersan, and Robert Covington is emerging into a, I suppose, senior type of player. But I think it’s a collective, progressive growth, borne out of some rough times earlier in the season, and now sort of delivered into March, with the excitement in our mind that we’re close to achieving something special and something that was a declared goal, and that is to play in the playoffs.”
They’re getting awfully close to the playoffs: 34-27 with the sixth seed in east as of March 3rd, 2018.
It was 93-92 Sixers with about 4:24 remaining in the game.
They went on to hit their next four shots before Michael Kidd-Gilchrist committed a combination personal and technical foul, allowing Philly to open up a 7 point lead at the 1:12 mark.
The only blemish during that time was a Joel Embiid turnover. Otherwise, they executed on 4 of 5 possessions in a 3:12 span to finish it off.
Included in the run was more of the Embiid/Redick two-man game, this time a brush cut where Dwight Howard just didn’t switch off defensively, nor did a teammate slide into the paint:
This is lazy Howard not wanting to give Embiid the roll bucket:
Then they got ’em with the same thing on the other side, another brush cut with Howard playing awful defense:
And one more play, this one with Ilyasova starting on the wing and playing a combo game with Embiid for the easy backdoor flush:
I, uh… come on Dwight:
That seems to be the Sixers’ bread and butter in late game scenarios now, that 25 combo where Embiid plays a two-man game with the shooting guard (Redick) or, in last night’s case, the point guard and power forward. Sure, Dwight Howard played some awful defense on all three of those scenarios, but in each case Embiid was the set up man or facilitator, which works just the same.
And if the opponent is gonna play soft like that, just hammer the same play three times in a row.
Shoot the 3
Early on last night, it looked like Embiid was a little tired, shooting some early three pointers and running from arc to arc instead of rim to rim. He turned it on in the second half, getting down low and finishing with a line and chart that looked like this:
Joel started slow before picking it up, possible just pacing himself on the second night of a back-to-back.
This is what his first half looked like:
Sixers down 56-48 at the half.
Joel Embiid 2-9 from the field and 3-6 from the foul line, looks tired on the second night of a back-to-back, settling for deep stuff: pic.twitter.com/7y7dm8TrdR
— Kevin Kinkead (@Kevin_Kinkead) March 3, 2018
You see everything in the second half was much, much closer to the rim with zero three point attempts.
But Brown is okay with the shot selection, and spoke about it after the game while answering a question about whether fatigue causes Embiid to get complacent with deep looks:
“I really want him to shoot six to eight threes a game. How does that happen, and he still is an interior presence, a paint catch guy? If you look at our team, I’m convinced that the three-point line is where the sport is heading and I think it’s going to rear its head in the playoffs. Our point guards don’t shoot threes. So already you’re kind of dealing with zero with Ben and T.J. So where can we make up some difference? I post Ben a lot, and we try to space him. I thought Joel mixed it up quite well, we executed some stuff on cross-screens, getting him the ball after free-throws well, but I hear what you’re saying, the rim to rim stuff, three point line to three point line, I go into fatigue mode more than mentality mode.”
Embiid, then, was asked about Brown’s comment:
“It’s tough. I’m sure everybody would love (to shoot that many threes), but I want to be a down low and inside presence. Sometimes you’ve got to make (defenders) work like, you could see in that 4th quarter, I thought Dwight (Howard) kind of took it personal and didn’t want to help off of me. But I was like, let me keep playing that two man game and get my teammates open, and we got a lot of layups and dunks off of that. When you’re in that type of offense, whatever I can do to set my teammates free, I’ll do it. If it takes me being on the three point line for Ben being able to attack the basket and have a free lane, that’s what I’m going to do. If I’m open from three, I know the coaches want me to take like 10 threes a game, which, maybe it’s happened (laughs) but I don’t know how many times it’s going to happen in my career unless I really feel it. But my job is just kind of, draw some attention and open up and work off of my teammates.”
Jo is smart. He really is. With that answer, you can tell he understands the finer points of the game and, more importantly, buys in to what the staff is teaching.
And he’s on-point with that Howard bit as well, which adds to what I shared above.
Since Ben isn’t shooting threes and T.J. isn’t shooting threes, the Sixers have to flip the court a bit, and they can do that by pulling the versatile 7’2″ center to the arc and sending the versatile 6’10” point guard to the low block instead. It’s a very unique swapping of skills that few teams can pull off, and it’s a necessity in this case to threaten teams from beyond the arc and keep proper spacing on the floor.
18, 4, and 3 in 23 minutes.
He’s just a great fit for this team, doing a lot of the same stretch-four things that Dario Saric does in the starting lineup.
And he gives you flex, too. With Amir Johnson resting on the back-to-back night, Brown didn’t really use Richaun Holmes in the second half, preferring to play Ilyasova and Saric as a 4/5 pairing in situations where Joel Embiid was on the bench. There’s not a ton of rim protection in that lineup, but offensively it can be a nightmare to guard, considering the fact that you’ve got a power forward and fake five who can both space the floor and shoot the ball.
So while you wouldn’t lean on that frequently, it’s there if you need it, and it’s another wrinkle to throw at teams.
More importantly, the Sixers now have legitimate bench scoring for the first time this season. Jerryd Bayless remains completely out of the rotation while Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot played just five minutes last night. The bench points came from Ilyasova, Marco Belinelli, and Holmes, who combined for a respectable 31.