3 Observations as Sixers’ Struggles Against Zone Defense Continue in Odd Loss to Mavericks

By Matt Gregan, Sports Talk Philly Staff Writer

The Philadelphia 76ers dropped their second consecutive game, falling to the Dallas Mavericks 107-98.

Luka Doncic proved he is one of the best players in the league, dropping a 30-point triple-double to lead the Mavericks to the win.

The turning point came in the second half when Dallas switched to a zone defense, something the Sixers again had no answers for.

Both teams were banged up heading into the game. The Sixers were without Furkan Korkmaz (left knee soreness) and Shake Milton (back contusion). The Mavericks were without Kristaps Porzingis (right knee bone bruise), Tim Hardaway Jr. (left foot surgery), Maxi Kleber (late scratch with a left knee effusion) and Sterling Brown (left foot soreness).

Seth Curry came into the game questionable with back spasms, but he would go on to be available and in the starting lineup. He finished with 11 points (3-of-6 shooting from three-point range), three rebounds and three assists.

Joel Embiid finished with 27 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, two steals and three blocks. Tyrese Maxey added in 18 points and six assists.

The Sixers currently sit at 31-21 this season. They will next take on the first-place Chicago Bulls on Sunday afternoon in Chicago. Here are three observations from the loss to the Mavericks:

Embiid, Harris dominate odd first quarter

The first quarter was one of the oddest quarters of basketball I ever witnessed, and it was not due at all to the play on the court.

Doncic made a three midway through the first quarter and pointed out the rim was crooked. A 45-minute delay ensued, finally resulting in one of the baskets being replaced in its entirety. The delay was a long interruption in the middle of the quarter, but the Sixers still dominated the opening quarter both before and after the delay.

Tobias Harris, who seems to have been getting off to fast starts a lot over the past few games, scored nine points on perfect 4-of-4 shooting in the opening frame. He attacked a mismatch and did a good job getting into the paint early on. He also dished out three assists, including this one on a nice two-man action with Andre Drummond.

Embiid also got off to a quick start, drawing multiple fouls and controlling the paint on defense. He nearly had a double double in just the first quarter, totaling nine points and nine rebounds. He contributed in all areas, including making this full-court pass to Maxey for a layup in transition.

The Sixers as a team had a good first quarter, opening up a 33-24 lead behind balanced efforts from throughout the roster combined with good, tough defense. The Mavericks made just one of their last 11 shots of the quarter.

Zone defense continues to plague the Sixers

The Sixers' offense was hitting on all cylinders in the first half, scoring 63 points on 55.3 percent shooting. However, the Mavericks came out of halftime in a zone defense, something the Sixers are known to struggle against.

The team's spacing immediately crumbles, and there were a few possessions where Embiid and Harris were posted up within two or three feet of each other. The way to beat a zone defense is to effectively space the floor, not to crunch together around the paint. The struggles against zone defense continue to plague the Sixers despite it being a recurring issue over the past few years.

Philadelphia was up by 16 at one point in the first half, but their struggles against Dallas' zone cost them the lead. In the third quarter, the Sixers had six made shots and six turnovers, completely inexcusable.

To make matters worse, Dallas got into a groove offensively as well in the third frame. They outscored the Sixers 32-15 in the quarter, with this Doncic slam dunk capping off what was truly a terrible quarter of basketball from Philadelphia.

The Sixers had a brief burst of success against the zone to begin the fourth quarter, with Maxey able to get to the rim for a pair of buckets to spur an 11-0 run. However,  the Dallas zone effectively turned their offense into a slog for much of the second half. The Sixers completely self-destructed in the second half, getting outscored 54-35.

The fact the zone defense continues to be an issue for this team reflects poorly on everyone involved, from the players to especially the coaching staff. Head coach Doc Rivers failed to make any meaningful adjustments throughout the second half to combat the zone, and it would go on to cost the team the game.

Other assorted observations

  • The Sixers' bench scored 23 points compared to the Mavericks' bench scoring just eight points. Georges Niang had a good game for the Sixers, scoring 13 points and knocking down three of his four attempts from beyond the arc. Drummond added in six points, seven rebounds, two assists and two steals in 15 minutes off the bench.
  • Isaiah Joe came off the bench ahead of Danny Green tonight, but he struggled and did not make an impact on the game. Joe failed to score a point and picked up four fouls in 18 minutes. Green was not much better, scoring four points and grabbing six rebounds but shooting 0-of-5 from beyond the arc.
  • Luka Doncic is an amazing player for the Mavericks. He is able to manipulate the defense so easily, resulting in 15 assists against the Sixers. Overall, he finished with 33 points, 13 rebounds and 15 assists. The Sixers handled him relatively well in the first half, matching Matisse Thybulle with him. However, the Sixers went away from that in the second half as they opted to go with more Green minutes due to the team's offensive struggles.
  • Rebounding continues to be an issue for the Sixers. They were out-rebounded 40-36 overall, but the more pressing issue lay with them giving up 11 offensive rebounds. This played a big role in allowing Dallas to get up 15 more field goal attempts. Dallas also scored 19 second-chance points compared to 12 for the Sixers.

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