Sixers' Defense Fueling Everything as Series Vs. Raptors Gets Chippy

With three different iterations of their roster, the Sixers have looked like a totally different team at times.

You don't have to dig for evidence of that. After a dismal effort in Game 1, the team has flipped the switch. Following a Game 2 win in Toronto, the Sixers rolled the Raptors in Game 3 at the Wells Fargo Center Thursday night and hold a 2-1 series lead.

You can talk about Jimmy Butler's back-to-back brilliant performances or Joel Embiid's breakout game, but all of the Sixers' success comes back to defense.

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It's an identity Brett Brown is reveling in.

"We have taken great pride in our defense. It us the thing that interests me the most that I think connects the dots," Brown said. "Because normally teams that I have coached that you want or you wished did better let their offense sort of dictate their mood. And then if we felt pretty good, you've got a chance of playing some good defense. There's an inverted attitude that I love - like we're trying to guard. We're really trying to play defense."

Some credit has to go to Brown, whose adjustments on the defensive end have helped turned the tide of the series. Using Ben Simmons as much as possible on Kawhi Leonard and Joel Embiid on Pascal Siakam have been two big wrinkles.

In the series, Leonard has shot 22 of 42 (52 percent) when guarded by Simmons. Against any mere mortal, that wouldn't look impressive. But against Leonard, who was brilliant in a 45-point Game 1 performance, it's strong work from Simmons. 

In Game 1, Siakam, who went 12 of 15 for 29 points, wasn't defended by Embiid on a single possession. In the last two contests, Siakam is just 7 of 24 when guarded by his fellow Cameroonian.

"Pascal had a great first game and the second game and this third game we've been able to contain him," Embiid said. "With Kawhi, you just go to make it as tough as you can defensively. Make him try to take as many contested shots [as you can]. Ben has been doing a good job. Guys that have switched on him, they've all been doing a good job. The rest is all about rebounding. We know that if we keep those two guys in check we know that we have a great chance of winning."

Forgetting the adjustments for a moment, there's just a different feel with this team right now. There's an edge to their game that's welcomed after a disappointing regular season on that end of the floor. Just a year removed from finishing third in the NBA in defensive rating, the Sixers were tied for 13th in 2018-19.

You can blame the personnel upheaval or whatever you'd like, but it feels like an attitudinal change above anything else. They've held Toronto under 100 points for two straights games and have completely dominated on the glass.

Embiid is the anchor both because of his elite defensive skill set, but also the fire he plays with. After a bush league play where Siakam stuck out his leg to trip Embiid - a play that somehow only earned Siakam a Flagrant 1 - Embiid responded the best way he could.

"[He was most impressive] on the defensive end. We know what he can do on offense," Mike Scott said of Embiid. "Ain't nobody f---ing with him down there. Siakam tried to punk him, [then he] blocked his shot. That's great. That's an amazing part of the game. Great defending and shot blocking."

The series did begin to get a bit chippy. In addition to the Siakam play, there was an incident where Simmons got tangled up with Kyle Lowry and it appeared Simmons elbowed Lowry in a sensitive area. To the credit of all the players involved, none of them made a bigger thing of it postgame.

The Sixers' focus seems to be in the right place and on the right end of the floor as a pivotal Game 4 looms Sunday.

"I think everybody knows what it's going to take and it starts on defense," Simmons said. "When you have Jo blocking shots, guys running through screens, diving for the ball, whatever it is, it's the little things that count that everybody can do."

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