PHILADELPHIA – To be a championship contender, a team must be great on both ends of the floor.
(We’ll say that the Cleveland Cavaliers of the last two seasons are the exception to the rule, though it must be acknowledged that their championship season was the one in which they ranked in the top 10 defensively.)
The Philadelphia 76ers, just two years after completing a season in which they lost 72 games, have become great on both ends of the floor.
The Sixers ranked third defensively this season. J.J. Redick is their only starter shorter than 6-9 and size matters on that end of the floor. Ben Simmons was the rare rookie who made a positive impact defensively.
But Game 1 of their first-round series against the Miami Heat, in addition to being the Sixers’ 17th straight win and their 24th win in 25 home games since Jan. 1, was the latest example of how big of a leap they’ve made offensively over the last two months. The Sixers scored 130 points on just 98 possessions on Saturday, chewing up what was the seventh-ranked defense in the regular season.
The 18-for-28 from 3-point range that the Sixers shot in the 130-103 victory is not sustainable. But even if all those shots aren’t dropping, they won’t be significantly easier to guard in Game 2 on Monday.
“They play really, really fast,” Heat center Kelly Olynyk said after his team allowed 74 points in the second half. “A lot of stuff in transition. They just kept those shooters coming off staggered screens, non-stop, full speed and it’s tough to guard when they got four shooters out there with Simmons handling the ball it’s tough to help and pack the paint, get in the paint.
“They’re coming off making tough shots, throwing the ball back, other guys are making shots, Simmons is attacking, they’re getting back cuts, trying to guard off screens. They play really fast, they execute really, really well.”
The Sixers have played faster since losing Joel Embiid to a facial fracture in late March. But they’ve been playing with pace, moving bodies and moving the ball since the start of “The Process.” This is the system that head coach Brett Brown has been developing for the last five years.
For most of that time, he just didn’t have the personnel to execute it well. But all those seasons at the bottom of the standings have resulted in an influx of talent. More talent has resulted in better execution, and suddenly, this team has become hard to stop.
Without Embiid, Simmons is driving the bus. But a playmaker, no matter how talented, needs the right people around him. And as the Cavs and Golden State Warriors have taught us over the last few years, you can never have too much shooting in this league.
Redick, sixth among active players in career 3-point percentage, was the Sixers’ big addition in free agency last summer. Dario Saric was the most improved 3-point shooter in the league this season, and Robert Covington led the league in catch-and-shoot 3s. But it wasn’t until February, when the Sixers added both Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova in the buyout market, that the offense really took off.
When the Sixers signed Belinelli on Feb. 12, they ranked 14th in offensive efficiency, having scored 105 points per 100 possessions over their first 53 games. They had seen a big improvement from last season (when they ranked last offensively for the fourth straight year), but were still worse than average on that end of the floor.
After the Belinelli addition (Ilyasova would sign two weeks later), they ranked fifth on offense, scoring more than 111 points per 100 possessions over their final 29 games. The Sixers were the only team that ranked in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency after the All-Star break.
The defense has been there all season, and it helped the Sixers take the lead for good on Saturday with a 15-3 run early in the third quarter by holding the Heat scoreless on eight straight possessions.
The offense, or at least its foundation, has been there all season too. The Sixers led the league in ball movement (passes per minute of possession) and ranked second in player movement (miles traveled per minute of possession). Last season, they led the league in both. This is who they are and who’ve they’ve been since Day 1 with Brown.
“What we did the first day of (training) camp is what we needed to win tonight,” Brown said Saturday. “Passing the ball, sharing the ball, playing downhill, understanding it’s really the magic play in the playoffs. It’s always about concepts and spacing and unselfish players.”
The Sixers recorded assists on 34 of their 45 baskets in Game 1. Belinelli, Ilyasova and Redick combined to score 70 points and that game-deciding run came with with Ilyasova – one more shooter around Simmons – starting the third quarter in place of Amir Johnson.
Pace, space, ball movement, player movement, and lights-out shooting — it all came together in an incredible offensive display.
But Brown began planning for this moment five years ago. And when he finally got the players talented enough to make his system work, he was ready to plug them in.
“Whether Ersan comes in or Marco comes in, that’s who we are,” Brown said. “That’s what we’re trying to coach here. And the guys have bought in. We play fast, we look for each other. The 3-point shot, without Joel, has become a real big part of our identity. We’ll continue to do that. You have to do that or you won’t win games when it matters.”
For the first time in six years, the Philadelphia 76ers have won a game that matters. And with how good they’ve become on both ends of the floor, there will be more to come.
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