Seven Days of Sixers: It Begins

It’s finally here. Opening week is upon us. Some cities, like Phoenix or Charlotte, will shrug and go about their regular lives. Others are white-knuckling their television remotes, eagerly anticipating tip-off. In Philadelphia, this week marks the beginning of a revenge tour, and the Celtics and Pistons will have the daunting task of issuing the Sixers a collective black eye.

First up: Pahk the Cah in Hahvahd Yahd

Boston Celtics

October 23, 7:30 PM, Wells Fargo Center (ESPN)

A season-opener on national television is a sign of respect. A season-opener at home on national television? It’s your league. It’s going to be an emotional night for the Sixers and their fans. Obviously, it’s the first meaningful game they will have played since th–it’s still too soon. Joel Embiid, with that damned jump shot from the baseline still fresh on his mind, will look to set the tone as a matured leader.

Al Horford will look to show his former team what they’re missing on Opening Night. Photo by Wayne Terry, TPL.

For the Celtics, more painful than battling with a hungry (not literally, please) Embiid will be facing Al Horford. Losing Horford to the Sixers is the most embarrassing thing to happen to the Celtics since the marketing failure that was the #CusCrise campaign. Big Al will want to set the tone for his new squad, but he will also want to remind Danny Ainge that he made a mistake by not giving his big a competitive extension offer. Now, we can go twelve rounds about whether Horford wants to be in Philadelphia, or we can look at facts. Horford’s own words to the media, as well as some of the things his sister, Anna, has said on Twitter, say a lot about how the Horford family really feels about the third phase of Al’s career — they might be excited about being here, but they’d rather be in Boston. I’m sorry, it’s just my interpretation of the data I’ve gathered. I’m not attempting to create an issue, I’m just giving my honest opinion.

For Ben Simmons, this is one big 😤. It’s about coming out and showing the NBA that he’s a problem. Every respectable basketball mind admits that Ben Simmons’ ability to be unstoppable is predicated on whether he develops a jump shot. I agree. But, I don’t expect him to come out with 30-foot yack’ems in the first game. The jumpers will come, slowly but surely. What I expect and desperately need to see is a Ben Simmons who is fed up. I want him to have the look that Gordon had on his face in Dodgeball when he saw his wife getting a wee-bit too friendly with another man in the stands while Patches O’Houlihan was telling him he needed to get angry. Gordon got angry, and (spoiler alert!) the underdog Average Joe’s upset the jocks. An angry Ben Simmons will realize that no one can stop him if he decides that he’s getting to the basket no matter what. So, I want Ben to put his head down and attack. If he gets to the rim, stuff it. If not, he’ll have collapsed the defense enough to set up a teammate for an easy look. 

For Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson, this game is about establishing themselves and playing within their roles. That may vary on a game-to-game basis in the early going, but their jobs will become clearer as the wins pile up. For game one, they need to stretch the floor. Neither player is J.J. Redick, but they can move without the ball and put themselves in spots to cash in on open looks. If they can minimize the number of open looks that they miss and thus provide spacing, the Sixers will likely be 1-0. Of course, on the other side of the court, this game is about showcasing the defensive visions we have for this team. Switching, staying in front of their respective men, constantly communicating, and being in proper help position will go a long way towards winning this game, especially when they’re in charge of manning Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward. 

Now, allow me to prescribe a game plan for this first contest. 

Kemba Walker

The savior of the Celtics’ summer has simply given the Sixers fits over the last two seasons. Against the 29 foes he’s faced in the NBA, Cardiac Kemba has made his name methodically planting jumpers in the pick-and-roll, hiding behind screens beyond the three-point line, and attacking lanes to the rim.

However, he has notably struggled to score when the ball isn’t firmly in his hands for the whole possession. He connected on less than 39% of his field goal attempts when taking fewer than 3 dribbles before shooting last season. He also made less than 36% of his catch-and-shoot opportunities (granted, the sample size is extremely small) in 2018-19. With all signs indicating that Walker would like to buzz past screens from Enes Kanter and pick apart the Sixers on pull-up jumpers, that would spell chaos for the Sixers defense in previous seasons. But, now they have Josh Richardson. I would recommend charging Richardson with Kemba duty. At his size, and with his defensive prowess, this seems like just a little more difficult than an average day at the office, right? Well, there’s one catch. The Sixers will need to deny Walker the ball at every chance they get. I don’t mean playing the passing lanes, I mean cornerback man coverage. Josh needs to glue himself to Walker as much as possible. Will he be able to do it every possession? No, that would be insane. But, if Richardson can play Walker tight enough that Marcus Smart is forced to become the point guard, it will be a job well done.

The Sixers will not be able to switch on screens with Walker, as that will afford him the opportunity to break slower-footed defenders down and get to the rim. His quickness will also make it very difficult to recover if his defender attempts to fight through the screen. A hedge of any type seems dangerous, as Kanter is one of the best pick-and-roll finishers in the NBA. So, that leaves us with one option: go under the screen. 

Kemba utilizes Zeller as a snake screener here, which, believe it or not, does expend energy. The entire time, LeBron is committed to going under the screen. Once Kemba decides to settle for the deep triple, LeBron has already covered the spatial difference and has closed him out well. The energy used snaking around Zeller, combined with the hand in his face, forces Kemba to leave the jumper short. 

Jayson Tatum

This one is easier. The objective is to keep Tatum as uncomfortable as possible. Force him to hesitate when selecting his shots. The more he has to think, the more he misses. However you want to do it, just don’t let him see the ball go in multiple times in a row. Ideally, Ben Simmons will force him to go left and settle for jumpers. Tatum’s touch falls off a cliff when his body is carried left during his shot.

Brad Stevens’ system utilizes a ton of middle pick-and-roll for Tatum. We’re going under with Kemba, but I’d elect to go over with Tatum. The load-up on his jumper gives his defender enough time to catch up and contest the shot. With Simmons’ size, strength, and quickness, he should be able to follow Tatum closely through screens.

As has been indicated, I’m keying in on Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum. The Sixers must deny Walker the ball as much as possible and go under screens in the pick-and-roll. If they make Tatum uncomfortable with his shot selection and go over ball screens to stay close to him, they can render him ineffective on opening night. Limiting Walker and neutralizing Tatum will make for a fun Wednesday night in South Philly.

Prediction: Sixers 102, Celtics 89 

Next up: DE.TROIT. BASKET.BALL.

Detroit Pistons

October 26, 7 PM, Little Caesars Arena (NBCS Philly)

This one won’t be nearly as complicated. If the Pistons had anyone who could shoot the ball outside of Luke Kennard, Svi Mykhailiuk, and Blake Griffin, I’d be more concerned. Griffin is their LeBron. He’s transformed his game to become a sniper, an excellent passer, and a very capable ball-handler. If the pieces around him fit well, this game would be very interesting.

But, such isn’t the case. Andre Drummond is a shell of his usual self whenever Embiid is on the court, and there is no consistent shooting outside of Kennard and Mykhailiuk to take the pressure off of Griffin. Ben Simmons will need to do everything he can to turn Griffin into a high-post passer and make his comrades finish plays. If the peripheral pieces are covered well (and there’s no excuse for them not to be), it won’t matter who Griffin passes to or how nice the pass is, his teammates aren’t skilled enough to make plays. When Griffin inevitably beats Ben or whoever else defends him, the likes of Embiid and Horford need to step into the lane to disrupt Griffin until his primary defender recovers. 

Griffin will get his–he always does. This game is about letting Drummond get his 8 points and 12 boards, Griffin get his 35, and minimizing the damage otherwise.

Prediction: Sixers 104, Pistons 82

In less than 48 hours, the Sixers are back, and they’re out for blood.