Saturday, December 9, 2017

Sixers need to readjust their late-game defense

By Steve Kallas (posted by Rick Morris)

It seems clear that the Philadelphia 76ers, after years of “trusting the process,” have come away with two All-Star, at some point (IF they stay healthy) superstar, players in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.  Barring a big injury to one or both, they certainly look like a playoff team in the “better but still not as good as the West” Eastern Conference.


The Sixers turned a winnable game into a loss on Thursday, December 7, against a Laker team that was desperate for a win after losing five in a row.  The Sixers made no defensive adjustments down the stretch and it cost them the game.  What do we mean?

Well, after battling back from 15 down with 11 minutes left, the Sixers, inexplicably, were trying to fight over picks down the stretch when the ball was 25 feet or more from the basket.  To make matters worse, two of the three times (both with Ben Simmons defending), Lonzo Ball (shooting 25% from three) was the ball handler.


On the first play, with the Lakers up one with 3:17 left in the fourth quarter, Ball has the ball four or five feet behind the three-point line when Julius Randle comes to pick Simmons.  Simmons attempts (why?) to get over the pick (rather than under it – Ball is a horrible three-point shooter), Embiid jumps out to pick up Ball, who throws a nice bounce pass to Randle, who goes in and scores on a tough lay-up on the left side (remember, Randle is lefty).  The Lakers go up three.

On their next possession, up one again after an Embiid basket, the Lakers run the same play.  Randle sets the pick for Ball with about 2:41 left, Simmons again (why?) tries to go over the pick and fails, Embiid jumps out on Ball, who again passes to Randle, who this time gets hammered at the basket and makes one of two free throws to go up two.

On their next possession, after a Richaun Holmes dunk (and did he play well), with 2:15 to play, the Lakers run the same play for the third straight possession.  This time, Brandon Ingram has the ball some 30 feet from the basket.  Randle comes over and sets the same pick (even a little higher this time).  This time, Robert Covington tries to fight over the pick (why?), Holmes, guarding Randle, jumps out almost to the three-point line to pick up Ingram who passes to Randle for the easiest of the three lay-ups Randle took on those three possessions.  Lakers up two again.


Well, if you’ve played ball at any reasonable level (high school, college or higher), you know that, generally speaking, you are taught to battle, to belly up to your guy, to fight over the pick.  But there are instances (like the three possessions discussed above) when it is just plain stupid to fight over the pick. 

Lonzo Ball is shooting 24% from three in this, his first season shooting from the more distant NBA three-point line.  So what happens if Simmons goes below the pick, moves his feet and meets Ball on the other side? 

Nothing happens.  There’s no switch, there’s no threat of an easy left side lay-up for the lefty Randle and the Lakers have to run something else.  If Ball pulls up behind the screen and takes a long three, you thank him.

Even on the third possession, with Brandon Ingram (a 33% three-point shooter) with the ball even further away from the basket than Ball was, you go under the pick, and if he pulls up for about a 28-foot three, you thank him.

While it’s a basic tenet of good, “gritty” defense to fight over picks, it’s simply not always necessary.  Or smart.  As an absurd example to explain the difference, if Ball brings the ball across midcourt and Randle sets a pick 40 feet from the basket, nobody is really going to try to get over that pick.  The same applies when the ball handler either can’t shoot threes and/or is too far away to realistically take and make one.

You’ll often hear, when a guy like Steph Curry (and others) takes a three behind a pick and makes it, the announcer say “you have to fight over those picks or this guy will make threes all day.”  Well, that’s just not the case when the potential shooters are Lonzo Ball (24% from three) or even Ingram (33% from three but he was four feet back from where Ball was).

So the Lakers got five relatively easy points by running the same play that could easily have been better defended.


Tie game, Ball misses a three and Embiid misses (with 13 seconds left) in close to set up the Lakers’ final possession.  Ball brings the ball across the midcourt line, passes it back to Ingram and runs to the corner behind the three-point line all alone.  Ingram gives it back to Ball in the corner.  Is he going to take a three?  No chance (he had just missed one, was 0-3 from three for the game and is under 25% for the season).

Embiid sprints out at Ball at full speed and Ball goes right around him, goes to the basket alone, has Covington (leaving Ingram alone at the three-point line) and Holmes converging on him and passes to Ingram for an open three that wins the game.

Is it too much to ask Embiid not to go full speed at Ball?  If he goes out at Ball, but not at full speed, is Ball going to shoot a three over Embiid’s waving hands?  Unlikely.  Is it too much to expect Embiid to not sprint out and get easily passed by Ball, who was all alone?  Maybe.

In baseball, they talk about the great infielder who knows the running speed of every batter so, if he makes an excellent play and knocks down the ball, he knows how much time he has to attempt to throw out that particular runner.

So, too, in basketball, when you are defending on picks above the three-point line and when you see terrible three-point shooters alone behind the three-point line, you have to make a split-second but intelligent decision on what to do: in the first instance, go under the pick; in the second, rush out quickly but not to the point of letting somebody blow right by you.

Can this be coached?  Absolutely.


There was that fiasco of a game back on November 29 where the Washington Wizards, down 15 to the Sixers in the middle of the fourth quarter, decided to take a shot and go Hack-a-Shaq on Ben Simmons.  Since you can’t foul off the ball in the final two minutes of any quarter (the new rule), the Wizards resorted to fouling Simmons for a four- to five-minute stretch until the 2:01 mark, cutting a 15-point lead down to three before losing the game to the Sixers by five.

While Commissioner Adam Silver was on the telecast explaining how the league had improved on a number of rules, including this one, the Wizards made a (legal) mockery of the game as Simmons took an NBA record 24 free throws in one quarter (making only 12, which is why the fiasco almost worked).

While the rule should be changed to make it either totally illegal or at least four or six minutes per quarter as opposed to two, the more interesting question is what can the Sixers do to limit the damage in these situations.

The answer is pretty simple – at a minimum, take Simmons out of the game for one offensive possession.  All these off-the-ball fouls were committed in a four- to five-minute span.  When the Sixers had the ball, they literally had it for three to five seconds before Simmons was fouled.  If you pull him for just one possession and run out virtually the full 24 seconds before shooting, you might be able to kill almost a minute of that time with good defense at the other end.  If you can afford to do it for more than one possession (if you are way up), that result would be even better.

Whatever you do, even if the other team runs their quick offense, you should be able to kill 45 seconds (including your possession) or more with this strategy.  It doesn’t sound like much, but in the 24 seconds you run your offense, Ben Simmons could have been (and was in this game) fouled three or even four times.

Just a thought for the next time this happens (if there is a next time).


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