The Philadelphia 76ers came into this season with a goal to put a renewed focus and effort into being one of the top defensive teams in the league. As they officially cross the midpoint of the season, they have thus far achieved that goal.
With 41 games down and 41 to go, the Sixers are fourth in the league in defensive rating (110.2). They have been one of the better defensive teams in the league, something that has helped them get through large portions of the season playing without one or two of their key starters due to injury.
However, cracks have appeared in the armor in recent weeks. Over their last eight games, the Sixers have allowed 118.3 points per game. They have given up a multitude of huge scoring nights, whether it be to C.J. McCollum, Zach LaVine or, most recently, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Their slippage defensively can partially be attributed to some bad luck. The Sixers are seventh in the league in defending the 3-point line, allowing their opponents to shoot 34.4% from deep. Over this rough stretch, they have suffered through a pair of extraordinary 3-point shooting nights. McCollum scored 42 points while shooting 11-of-16 from beyond the arc back on Dec. 30. LaVine shot 11-of-13 from 3-point range on his way to scoring 41 points on Jan. 6. While this can be somewhat due to bad luck, a theme of poor defense along the perimeter is starting to arise.
Their 133-114 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder proved to be an eye-opening performance. The main issue popping up was a lack of good on-ball defense. The Thunder shot 51.2% from the field and 42.4% from beyond the arc. They also got to the free-throw line 33 times. They were able to get whatever they wanted from inside and outside the 3-point line.
“If you can’t guard your own men, all of us, if we can’t guard our own men, we’re not going to be good defensively,” Joel Embiid said after the loss to the Thunder. “No matter how tight we are with our schemes and executing whatever we have to do with the game plan, it’s just not going to work out.”
Embiid, the anchor of the Sixers defense, played just 10 minutes in the first half due to being in foul trouble. He picked up his third foul with 7:00 minutes remaining in the second quarter. However, head coach Doc Rivers refused to attribute the team’s defensive woes to Embiid’s foul trouble.
“I thought a lot of [the team’s fouls] were because we were not down, we were not ready, we were not in help position,” Rivers said. “This was just a bad effort on our team and we all – me, everybody – we have to take responsibility and be better next game.”
Defending Gilgeous-Alexander proved to be a major issue for the Sixers in their loss to the Thunder on Thursday night. He scored 37 points on 10-of-16 shooting, carving through the Sixers defense with ease. The Sixers’ best perimeter defenders, De’Anthony Melton and Matisse Thybulle, failed to slow him down.
A lot of Gilgeous-Alexander’s damage came in transition. The Sixers failed to get back into position, either allowing him to get to the rim or draw a foul. The Thunder scored 21 fast-break points, but that number perhaps could have been even higher if accounting for the fouls drawn in transition. Gilgeous-Alexander went 16-of-16 from the free-throw line and Oklahoma City went 31-of-33 from the line as a team. Both their struggles in on-ball defense and defending in transition collapsed the Sixers defense.
“They got into the paint over and over again,” Rivers said. “That leads to offensive rebounds. That leads to helps that leave them wide open for threes. And I thought they got all that tonight. And honestly, I thought a lot of them were just straight-line, individual defensive drives. Our individual defense tonight was so poor that our team defense could not help.”
Dominant scoring stretches from Embiid and James Harden have thus far been mostly enough to alleviate this recent stretch of poor defensive play. However, they will have to regain their footing defensively before the playoffs arrive if this team is to reach its potential. On that front, their problems defending in recent weeks are likely correctable. They have the personnel to be able to make the necessary adjustments. Although when it comes down to it, effort and communication will make or break their defensive results the rest of this season. Embiid spoke after the loss to the Thunder about what the team needs to do to get back to playing strong, dominant defense.
“I think it’s all about our defense,” Embiid said. “We’re still top-five in the league, but I don’t think we’ve reached our potential. I think we’ve still got a lot of breakdowns. We give up a lot of easy points, we don’t guard the ball the way we’re supposed to. So we’ve just got to take pride in it – all of us – doing a better job of stopping the ball first.”
The Sixers, at the midpoint of the season, currently sit at 25-16 and in fifth place in the Eastern Conference. They embark on a five-game West Coast road trip. Getting back to their dominant defensive form should be a top priority in the coming weeks. The road trip begins on Saturday with a matchup against the Utah Jazz.