Matisse guarding Simmons

As the Sixers embarked on a stretch without their All-Star center, much was made about the team’s ability to finish games. And while the offense looks clunky and awkward, Philadelphia has closed games out by simply putting a lid on the basket. Defense was always this team’s true calling card. But since Embiid’s injury, this group has showcased their immense defensive potential late in games. So let’s dive into the most recent defensive outbursts and make sense of what it all means.

AMONG THE LEAGUE’S VERY BEST

With the playoff-like feel of recent matchups, Philadelphia’s defense has matched the stakes at an extraordinary level. Without Embiid, the Sixers have clearly rallied around the adage that defense wins. At the forefront of it all is current DPOY candidate Ben Simmons. But he is not alone. Ben and company are suffocating teams since Embiid’s injury. During a seven game run capped off by the win in Brooklyn, the Sixers have league’s third best defensive rating in the 4th quarter. And as games have tightened late, the numbers become even more staggering.

  • Within 5 minutes of a 3 point game: 17 total minutes. 85 defensive rating
  • Within 3 minutes of a 3 point game: 9 total minutes. 61 defensive rating

In 5 of the 7 games, Philadelphia held teams to 20 or less fourth quarter points. An astounding outcome when you consider the whistle-centric play of crunch time basketball. The message is clear. Turn up the intensity. Suffocate ball handlers. And defend without fouling. But beyond the numbers lies an even deeper storyline of how the Sixers are shredding teams with the final outcome at stake.

AL HORFORD’S ROLE

Many questions surfaced about Philadelphia’s ability to protect the rim without Embiid patrolling the paint. With Al Horford (and some Norvel Pelle), not much has changed. During this seven game run, the Sixers are allowing teams to shoot 56% inside the restricted area during the 4th quarter (3rd among all NBA teams). While not as flashy as Joel, Horford provides a steady smart presence during critical moments of the game. Here is a two part sequence that speaks to Horford’s significant late game value. 

On the first look, Simmons runs Kyrie Irving off the three point line with Horford playing the lob pass to Jarrett Allen. Al’s supreme positioning denies both the pass while giving Simmons time to recover and contest the shot. On the next possession, Horford locks into Kyrie as Josh Richardson provides fantastic help defense. The Sixers pull off two critical crunch time possessions by attacking the ball handler, protecting the rim, and not committing the foul. Horford’s subtle contribution is a significant reason why.

LANDMINES ARE ALL OVER THE PLACE

But 4th quarter defense is not just predicated on its rim protection. The team continues to funnel late shots towards the mid range area where teams are shooting 26% on 19 fourth quarter attempts. With the interior fortified, the Sixers array of wing defenders are creating absolute havoc on the perimeter. Simmons, Richardson, Thybulle, and Harris lead a crunch time group that holds teams to 24% on 41 above the break 3s in the final frame (trailing only the Clippers at 21%). Simply put, the mouse traps are scattered all over the court when facing this Sixers defense.

The fun, however, does not end there for a Sixers defense looking to suffocate a win out of you. Teams are having a nightmarish time with Philadelphia’s pressure and size late in games. In the seven game stretch, 12% of 4th quarter attempts have come within 0 to 4 seconds of the shot clock (3rd most league attempts). Set offenses quickly turn into a game of hot potato with teams struggling to navigate the size and intensity of the Sixers’ perimeter defense. The outlook is even bleaker when offenses find a little more breathing room. Philadelphia is now allowing a scary 18% shooting on field goals within 4 to 7 seconds of the shot clock during this run. With limited options late in the clock, opposing offenses are left with a ticking time bomb as games inch closer to the final outcome.

QUITE A DEFENSIVE PAIRING

Crunch time basketball is rarely a time for rookies to shine. In Philadelphia, however, that has not been the case. With more available minutes, Brett Brown has now unleashed Matisse Thybulle in the 4th quarter. And pairing him with Ben Simmons has been like pouring gasoline into a burning fire. The duo now has over 50 fourth quarter minutes under their belt during this run. And the results? Staggering. Since January 9th, their 85.9 4th quarter defensive rating leads all 2-man lineups with over 40 minutes together. With the interior fortified, it has allowed both Simmons and Thybulle to be at their best. Hound ball handlers. Deny passing lanes. Disrupt flow. As a result, the duo leads the team with 26 points off turnovers in the 4th quarter. They have not only built a defensive wall, but also enabled much needed offense with the Sixers struggling to generate half court looks. It is a pairing that was not used much late in games prior to Embiid’s injury. And once Joel returns, they should be in serious consideration as a possible closing lineup for the Sixers in the playoffs.

With playoff basketball around the corner, it is evident where the Sixers are building their identity. The beauty of a long basketball season is that it provides time for teams to discover their strengths and weaknesses. This recent run has allowed the coaching staff to tinker and experiment. The Sixers are far from a finished product. But there is comfort in the fact that this team possess an immense defensive gear. A gear that not many teams can match late in games. It is a group that looks ready and capable to close out games on the defensive end. And a group that will get significantly better when Embiid returns. Scary.