Game Preview | Long Brown's Goal, Defensive Identity Taking Shape
A defensive identity is what Brett Brown has always wanted for the 76ers, and a defensive identity is what the team is in the midst of assuming.
It wasn’t only timely that the Sixers went into Friday’s stop at San Antonio playing some of their best basketball under Brown, but more specifically, some of their best defense.
Back at the scene where he spent 12 highly successful seasons as an assistant, the 56-year old proceeded to show former Spurs colleagues and players first-hand just how much havoc his troops are capable of wreaking.
In Friday’s one-sided victory, the Sixers’ defense was at its finest. From the jump, it flat out stifled San Antonio, typically a model of offensive efficiency.
While shooting 40.0 percent for the game, and managing just 3 of 24 3-point tries, the Spurs were held to a meager 78 points. The total was San Antonio’s lowest at home in four and a half years.
Yes, the Sixers’ triumph in the RIver City, just their third there in the last 33 seasons, allowed the club to keep momentum moving down the stretch of a revitalizing month, but it also represented a culminating moment for a defense that Brown has been intent on growing since he joined the franchise in 2013.
Of all the accomplished coaches the Mainer has been around throughout his career, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich is the one who’s sharpened Brown’s perspective on NBA defense the most, Brown has said on multiple occasions.
That Friday’s contest played out the way it did seemed to bring things full circle, in a way.
“We stayed focused throughout all 48 minutes,” Brown said after the Sixers beat the Spurs, 97-78, “and did an excellent job of defending them.”
How far has the Sixers’ defense come over the course of Brown’s tenure? As personnel has improved, so too has performance.
The Sixers finished the 2013-2014 campaign, Brown’s first, 27th out of 30 NBA teams in defensive rating (107.5 points allowed per 100 possessions). They then jumped to 12th in the league (102.1) in 2014-2015, dipped to 25th (106.7) in 2015-2016, before moving back up a bit to 17th (106.4) last season.
Entering Sunday’s nationally-televised match-up with the Oklahoma City Thunder, however, the Sixers were in the company of the elite, boasting the league’s third-ranked defense, with a rating of 102.4. Only the Boston Celtics (100.0) and Spurs (100.8) were ahead of them.
Further underscoring the Sixers’ defensive prowess statistically, opponents have shot just 43.5 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three this season, two figures that currently rank second overall (Boston, again, is first in both categories, holding foes to 43.3 and 33.3 percent, respectively).
The Sixers are tied for 10th in the NBA with 8.0 steals and 5.0 blocks per 100 possessions. They create deflections at a higher rate, 15.4 times per game, than all but four teams in the league. And, relying on a transformative 7-footer as their anchor, the Sixers defend at the rim better (60.9%) than 25 other teams, too.
The Sixers’ defense is long, strong, active, and, as Brown noted last week, increasingly switchable. It’s also a unit built on accountability.
The importance of accountability is perhaps the greatest philosophical influence Brown took from his time with Popovich.
“I’ve always been around defensive coaches, I see the world through that lens myself,” said Brown. “He took that belief, and tightened it up with NBA rules.”
Since assuming the reigns of the Sixers five years ago, Brown and his staff, with assistant Lloyd Pierce serving as the team’s defensive coordinator the entire time, have preached the importance of mastering defensive fundamentals, and deploying them consistently. These factors have arguably been as critical to the Sixers’ defensive progress as any schematic choices Brown has made.
In the aftermath of Friday’s convincing win, it was a collection of basics that Brown first cited when touching upon the high points of the Sixers’ defensive effort.
“I thought that our guys really played lower, slid their feet, showed their hands, and kept the game in front of us,” Brown said. “We did a really good job of not getting beat on the first dribble.”
Joel Embiid, of course, is the epicenter of the Sixers’ defensive universe. The All-Star big man’s 99.8 individual defensive rating ranks eighth among all players averaging at least 25 minutes per game, and Sixer opponents score nearly 5.5 points fewer per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. Embiid also defends 49.5 of opponent attempts at the rim, the fourth-best mark in the league.
Put a paint-clogging rim-protector on the back end of your defense, then throw in long, switchable, passing-lane disrupters like Ben Simmons (8th in the NBA with 1.8 steals per game) and Robert Covington (2nd in the league with 3.8 deflections per game), and you’ve got a dangerous, top-tier group. Dario Saric can defend multiple positions, too.
“Our defense, when we’re healthy, has been really good,” Brown said recently. “It has held us in good shape.”
A defensive identity is what Brown's always wanted, and what the Sixers are well on their way towards giving him.
In facing the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday (6:00 PM EST; ESPN, Sixers Radio Network / 97.5 FM The Fanatic), the Sixers will be visiting the NBA’s hottest team. Winners of a league-best seven in a row, OKC is sitting just outside the top-four in the Western Conference standings. In fact, after opening the year 14-15, the Thunder have responded by prevailing in 15 of their last 20 outings. Russell Westbrook paces the league in assists (10.0 apg) and triple-doubles (15), and learned this weekend teammate Paul George (21.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.0 apg, 2.2 spg) will be joining him in the All-Star Game, due to an injury to DeMarcus Cousins. Like the Sixers, Oklahoma City has one of the top defensive units in the league, ranking fifth in defensive rating (103.1).
• Video: ESPN / WatchESPN app
• Audio: 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network