Sixers — Three Defensive Adjustments They Need to Make for Game 2

The story after Game 1 was the shooting discrepancy between the Celtics and the Sixers.

Boston’s shooting line was 48.2% / 48.6% / 94.7%. (FG% / 3pFG% / FT%)

Philadelphia’s shooting line was 42.% / 19.2% / 74.3%

It’s unreasonable to expect these numbers to keep up; simple logic tells us that both teams will regress to the mean in Game 2 and for the remainder of the series, right?

When you consider our opportunities in the context of Boston’s defense—#1 in efficiency—the Sixers created pretty decent looks from beyond the arc and at the rim, those looks just didn’t fall. Embiid had his way for the majority of Game 1 and I don’t expect that to be any different moving forward. He absolutely bodied Horford down low and while Baynes can get close to matching him in size and athleticism he doesn’t stand a prayer in slowing him down without help. When Boston did help on Embiid he was able to find the open shooter/cutter—we just failed to convert on a lot of those opportunities as well. Regardless, the fact that he’s still capable of making the offense ‘go’ all by himself despite the poor shooting performance by literally every other player on the team should be encouraging.

The Sixers poor offensive output in Game 1 was more or less the product of an off night, but, I’m not sure that this same logic applies to the other end of the floor. The Sixers defensive effort on Monday night should warrant real concern.

The common response to a shooting performance like the one Boston had is, “well, they can’t possibly make those shots all series.” ..True, but, if they continue to create wide open layups, three-pointers, and easy transition buckets like in Game 1, then they can, and will make those shots all series.

It doesn’t take a basketball analyst to surmise that the Celtics pretty much had their way on offense. Whether it be a Terry Rozier breaking down his man off the dribble, Horford’s deadly mid-range jumper/pick-and-pop three, or Jayson Tatum doing just about whatever he wanted to JJ Redick; Brad Stevens had his pick of options all night, and those matchups aren’t going to get any better. Actually, they’ll only get worse when Jaylen Brown gets healthy.

Adjustment #1: Switch Covington onto Tatum and Simmons onto Rozier

Probably the most glaring mismatch all night, unsurprisingly, was JJ Redick on Jayson Tatum. I can’t really explain the thinking behind this. In our preview piece we outlined the Sixers defensive assignments and we incorrectly assumed Covington would draw Tatum while the team hides Redick on Jaylen Brown (or Marcus Smart for now). Why Brett Brown opted to put Redick on Tatum—a 6’ 8’’ natural scoring forward—is beyond me.

These were the matchups at the start of and throughout Game 1:

Rozier Covington
Smart Simmons
Tatum Redick
Horford Saric
Baynes Embiid

To start games, these matchups make more sense:

Rozier Simmons
Brown/Smart Redick
Tatum Covington
Horford Saric
Baynes Embiid

And when Boston uses their small-ball lineup to close out games:

Rozier Simmons
Brown/Smart Redick
Tatum Covington
M Morris Saric
Horford Embiid

The fundamental question you ask here is which player does the least damage when they beat their individual man? i.e.: Are they polished in isolation? Do they create for others? Do they make you pay when you send help defenders?

It doesn’t matter if it’s Kyrie Irving or Terry Rozier, you never want the point guard to consistently have his way in breaking down your offense—that much should be obvious. Which is why I slot Ben here. I think he and Covington (our two best options) have equally difficult times staying in front on guys like Rozier, but what makes Ben more ideal in this matchup is that his length allows him to disrupt Rozier at the rim or as a chase defender even after he gets beat. Game 1 proved that Rozier can shake any defender whose guarding him, so if that’s the case then BB needs to assign someone to him that can still find ways to be disruptive—Simmons’ athleticism and length offer that.

What’s less obvious is the decision between which Boston wing you are more comfortable with in a mismatch: Jason Tatum or Marcus Smart/Jaylen Brown (when he’s healthy)?

The answer to me is simple, I would rather rest Boston’s offense on the shoulders of a guy like Jaylen Brown—and definitely Smart if he’s in—before I would Tatum. Nobody has ever described Brown as a “scorer” or “creator” of any sort. Tatum, on the other hand, has a throwback iso game that makes him the last person to abandon JJ Redick on an island with. Most observers assumed that the matchup wouldn’t last all game, but it did. Instead of switching it up at any point throughout Tatum’s clinic, Brett Brown continued to throw Redick/Belinelli on the rookie and at no point did those matchups provide hope.

It’s unreasonable to expect Rozier, Horford, and Tatum to combine for 83 points again. But unless BB mixes up his on-ball matchups, there’s no reason to suggest they won’t have their way on offense all series.

Adjustment #2: Less switching, more rotating.

The Sixers naturally switch more than most teams in the NBA because of their versatility and athleticism, and against most teams that strategy pays off. The whole idea behind switching is to prevent ball screens from creating easy penetration, but that advantage is defeated against teams with better individual offensive weapons who can break you down in isolation regardless. Unlike the Sixers and most NBA teams, the Celtics don’t have just one or two players to rely on to create for themselves, but rather an entire cast of players who are capable of creating penetration when given a favorable matchup. Against a team like Boston, switching becomes counterproductive because it allows Brad Stevens to create whatever matchup he wants by simply calling ball-screens and running dribble hand-offs—which is exactly what they did.

While Boston will still be able to run effective offense against a non-switching defense, it likely won’t result in the wide open shots they were getting in Game 1. On top of that, it forces the Sixers to take a more team-oriented approach, which will help mitigate the terrible on-ball defense of guys like Redick and Belinelli.

Instead of letting Boston get whatever matchup they want every time down the court, the Sixers need to start fighting through screens and not be afraid of rotating. With one of the best rim protectors in the league in Embiid, the team is well equipped to make a non-switching game plan work.

Adjustment #3: Stick to the game plan

I don’t think this really qualifies as a suggestion as much as it is stating the obvious, but who cares. Against a team as buttoned up and sound as Boston, the Sixers can’t afford to lack attention to detail on either end of the floor.

I’ll offer an example from Game 1 to explicate my point.

With about 5:30 left in the game, Al Horford set a ball screen for Shane Larkin with Redick and Embiid defending. While Horford gets enough of Redick to affect him, JJ is able to slide under it clean enough to stay attached to Larkin (albeit in a trail position); after Horford sets the screen he flares to the top of the key. In this situation, Embiid is pressed to make a decision: allow Larkin (5’11’’) an easy path to the rim with Redick (6’3’’) tracking OR protect the rim and allow Horford to shoot a wide-open three where he’s connecting at 52.9% in the postseason (79.4 eFG%).

The game plan calls for Embiid to recover to Horford and give up a Larkin semi-contested 2-point look at the rim—the logic being that Larkin won’t convert in that situation over 79.4% of the time (He’s a career 59% finishing at the rim). However, Embiid makes a poor decision and follows Larkin and Redick to the rim which results in a wide open Horford three.

These are the mental lapses that the Sixers can’t afford against Boston. Basketball is a constant struggle between creating as many high percentage shots as possible, while forcing your opponent into lower percentage shots. Brad Stevens does an excellent job of positioning his team to win that battle and the Sixers need that same attention to detail if they want to win this series.

Does Brett Brown need to reinvent the wheel after the Game 1 loss? Absolutely not. But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t consider the new evidence that played out in front of him on Monday night and make a few tweaks here and there.

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