When the locker rooms open to the media 90 minutes before each game, it's common to see Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner talking at their lockers. Some players will be in the training room and others are lifting weights. Doug Collins is tucked away in an office and assistant coach Brian James is writing notes about the opponent on a huge whiteboard. Assistants Aaron McKie and Jeff Capel will be out on the floor, going through drills with players to get them ready for the game.
And in a bathroom, sitting on a chair with his laptop set on a sink, sits associate head coach Michael Curry, unaware of his less-than-desirable surrounding, focused to the game he is watching.
"I like to get somewhere and go and concentrate," Curry said. "It's just a place where I can get away from things and get into what I want to look at."
Collins has repeatedly talked of how much trust he puts in Curry, who played for Collins in Detroit and earned the respect and admiration of his coach because of his work ethic, penchant for detail and good character. Their friendship, Collins says, has made him a better person. And now Curry is certainly helping his former coach to make the Sixers a better team.
Curry is in charge of the defense, and if you look at the numbers through the first 10 games you know this bathroom thing is really working.
Heading into last night's 120-89 win over Washington, the Sixers led the NBA in defensive field-goal percent (39.4 percent), three-point field-goal percent (26.2 percent) and points allowed (85.5), and were third in the league in rebounding (45.2) and seventh in steals (9.2).
"I think Michael Curry is as good a defensive basketball mind as there is in the NBA," Collins said. "And I think what he does with our guys is terrific in that he puts us in a position so our guys can play to our strengths. We're not asking guys to do things that they are not capable of doing. That's huge. On a night-in and night-out basis, we don't really waver from what we do.
"The thing that Michael does so well is that he gears our defense to our personnel and what we can do. There are certain limitations that our guys have defensively. He's done a great job being able to put the scheme in that we can be successful. We don't have a big shot-blocking guy at the basket, we don't have what you would consider a great defensive rebounder. But what we do is our wings rebound well, which is important to us. We know we have to pressure the ball. Thad [Young] comes in and up the floor changes games just with his speed and quickness. And we've got some good individual defenders. Dre [Andre Iguodala] is arguably a first-team all-league defender. When our pressure on the ball is good and we get in passing lanes and are aggressive and rebound the ball, that really becomes our best offense. Michael has done a terrific job at that."
While many coaches, no matter the sport, will believe in a scheme and implement it, no matter the makeup of their personnel, Curry is different. He does have a system in which he believes, but also knows it might not work exactly for everyone.
"When we came in, our general philosophy was to defend the paint and limit three-point shots, especially the corner threes," said Curry, who played 11 NBA seasons and was the head coach of the Detroit Pistons for a season. "We also wanted to be able to better defend the pick-and-rolls, which is the biggest thing now in the NBA. So we knew we had to adjust to our personnel. You can have an idea of what kind of defense you might want to play, but if your players aren't capable of performing it, it's not going to work. But our players have bought into what we're trying to do and so far it's worked well."
Many times in practice, the Sixers work on their defensive rotation, pitting four defenders against five offensive players. The design is for the defenders to be able to make their rotations while still keeping an eye on the offensive post player, who is unguarded.
Two seasons ago, the Sixers were, by far, the worst NBA team defending against three-point shots. Now they are the best. That almost-daily drill has a lot to do with that, along with other intangibles.
"I think as you build together and you have some consistency within a roster, guys start to know each other," said Iguodala, the team's best defender. "We start to build, and defense is a part of that. We know our coverages. We don't have to drill it over and over and over again. There should be less mistakes, because you're spending plenty of time with the guys you're playing with on the court."
In a season where 66 games will be squeezed into 123 days, it's impossible to imagine that offensive crispness will be the norm. Defense, coaches explain, can be a constant.
"The first thing is that now we are so much better defending the 'five' [center] position," Collins said. "With Spencer [Hawes] and now Nik [Vucevic], we are much better in the post. Spencer is rebounding, he's intense, he and Nik are laying their bodies on the big guys. Then our guards are very good defensive rebounders, so they can help out our big guys there.
"And the second thing has been the guys being familiar with each other. They know what needs to be done, and they know how we want them to do it. They're experienced at our schemes. And the younger guys are catching on, too."
It isn't an aberration, Collins insists. It has been a work-in-progress.
"I thought last year when you looked at us, even after we got off to a 3-13 start, our defensive numbers were good," Collins said. "We were just turning the ball over and we were fouling too much. Our fouling is down, and we are very, very aggressive. We don't cause a lot of turnovers, so to speak, but we get a lot of deflections and steals. [It's good] anytime you get a steal that's an open-court play, so you can get out on the transition game and run and kind of get some easy baskets."
Collins and Curry realized last season that, with a team filled with athletes, it was the best way for them to defend. This season, Curry has perfected the schemes - mostly while in the bathroom.
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