Back in September, when the Sixers got together for training camp, Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons' jump shots were popular topics of discussion and Dario Saric and Robert Covington were in the starting lineup. A few things have changed since then.
But there is one topic Brett Brown discussed repeatedly in September that still is very relevant: His insistence that the Sixers needed to construct their defense such that Joel Embiid could stay on the floor (and be effective) in "five-out" environments. The problems posed by Al Horford's three-point shooting ability were fresh in his mind, and he wanted to have better answers.
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An underlying theme during Brown's conference call with reporters Friday afternoon was adapting to his players' games. He talked about growing the Jimmy Butler-Embiid pairing, using Simmons more as a screen setter and roller, and incorporating more pick-and-rolls into his offense. With Butler and Tobias Harris' strengths as pick-and-roll players, "it was going to be a no-brainer," Brown said, even though the Sixers ran the fewest pick-and-rolls in the NBA last season, per NBA.com/Stats.
Brown hasn't strayed, however, from his determination to tailor his defense to maintain Embiid's effectiveness when opponents employ shooting big men.
Without getting into too much coach speak, I think we declared our hand in strategy with him back at training camp. If the question is have we seen success, I think that we have. We're growing to where we can feel more comfortable to either put him on a matchup or put him in a scheme that will allow him to be Joel Embiid at the rim. You look at the plays that he had at the rim [Thursday] night, they are jaw-dropping. Some were just through natural ability and chasing stuff down, some was because he was in a floor spot that we had talked about back at training camp.
The matchup of Embiid against Pascal Siakam was an excellent one for the Sixers in Games 2 and 3. Siakam shot a combined 7 for 24 when guarded by Embiid. The concept of matching Embiid up at times on a non-center is a sensible, creative option. The decision to put him on Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Sixers' last two games against the Bucks is another such example.
Throughout the season, the Sixers have been steadfast, with few exceptions, about Embiid playing drop coverage in pick-and-rolls - he's rarely blitzed, hedged or switched unless things are going poorly, like the night Kemba Walker scored 60 points.
While they've adjusted their pick-and-roll coverage often with matchups not involving Embiid and also tweaked just how far Embiid drops depending on the opponent, the fundamental priority has been constant. The goal in pick-and-roll defense has been to neutralize the ball handler and, in the event he blows by his defender, to have Embiid in the paint for help. For the Sixers, long twos have consistently been the "sword we're willing to die on," as Brown is fond of saying.
Different adjustments might be required if Siakam were to start having success against Embiid, or if Horford were to hurt Embiid and the Sixers in the pick-and-pop in an Eastern Conference Finals matchup.
At the moment, though, Brown is pleased he began thinking about this topic a long time ago.
"We certainly invested a lot of time," he said. "I feel like we got out in front of the trends of the league and understood - it's becoming a five-out league, how do you still keep Jo on the floor? As you say, how do you guard Al Horford or whomever? If we're successful moving forward, there are always going to be bigs who can shoot threes and pull him possibly away from the basket. We hope to avoid that and I think that we identified that several months ago as a strategy and something that we needed to build on and grow. I feel comfortable that we're doing that and we're getting better at that."
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