Joel Embiid was on the bench, and Jaylen Brown was looking to attack. With three minutes left in the first quarter, the NBA’s 12th-leading scorer had the ball near the top of the key and all of the space he would need to break down his defender off the dribble. The only problem? Ben Simmons was the player blocking his way.
Brown went to his right, and Simmons was there. He shook to his left, and Simmons remained. Blanketed in the paint, Brown finally kicked out to teammate and watched a contested corner three clank off the rim.
In the grand scheme of things, it was an inconsequential possession, forgotten by the end of the night, let alone the end of the season. In a 122-110 win that pushed their conference-leading record to 11-5, the Sixers looked capable of dominance, and also of blocking their own way. They got 38 points from their center, the last of them on a ridiculous step-back three-pointer in the game’s final minute. They shot 56% from the floor and committed 19 turnovers. And, yet, it was on the defensive end of the court where their championship potential lurked.
Defense doesn’t win championships. Not in this day and age. In a sport where the ballhandler has such a distinct advantage, it is the players who best take advantage of the situation that end up raising banners. It’s why the Sixers were willing to trade the 24-year-old Simmons for the 31-year-old James Harden. It’s why the Nets are now prohibitive favorites, despite what could be a historically generous defense. The historical record tells the tale. Look at the 27 teams with the highest single-season offensive ratings over the last three seasons and you’ll find all six NBA Finals participants and 11 of 12 conference finalists.
At the same time, you fight with the army you have. The Sixers are not today’s Nets, or yesterday’s Warriors, or the Rockets from Daryl Morey’s days in Houston. They have a center who is having an MVP season and a defense that will need to be dominant.
Whether the Sixers can get to that point depends on the legitimacy of the potential they showed early in the season. Through seven games, no team in the NBA was allowing fewer points per 100 possessions or a lower effective field-goal percentage. Their defensive rating of 100.5 was nearly four points better than the second-best mark. Three times, they held an opponent under 95 points.
Those numbers have since slipped dramatically. The Sixers entered Friday night having allowed at least 106 points in each of their previous eight games, including three in which an opponent scored at least 120.
From Doc Rivers’ perspective, the key to rediscovering that brand of defense is as singular as it is simple.
“Get everybody on the floor,” said the coach, whose team has endured a wave of absences over the last two weeks. “Honestly, it’s hard to judge. I thought coming out of camp we were really good defensively. ... With all the disarray with the COVID, I think it’s really hard to judge right now where we’re at.”
The last week has brought flashes of the team they were in the season’s opening weeks. On Friday night, they weaved several long stretches of stifling play into an overall performance that yielded 110 points to a team that was missing Jayson Tatum. The story was similar two nights earlier when the Sixers held Boston to 17 points in the fourth quarter while pulling away for a 117-109 win.
“That shows that it’s in there,” Rivers said, “and when we get to full strength, I think it will be.”
On Friday night, they took an important step in that direction, with Seth Curry returning from an eight-game absence to drain a trio of three-pointers. While Curry is hardly an elite defender, the starting unit’s numbers have ballooned in his absence. With the team back to full strength, the Sixers are optimistic that the formula will soon return. In Simmons, they have a player who continues his evolution into one of the league’s most impactful on-ball defenders. In Embiid, they have a center who is one of the game’s two best rim protectors. And in Danny Green, they have a veteran who has long been considered in the upper echelon of stoppers.
On Friday night, you saw their potential on a number of possessions: Simmons going toe-to-toe with Brown, Matisse Thybulle recovering from a Kemba Walker crossover to block his pull-up three-pointer, Embiid continuing to build his MVP case around the rim. You saw a team that just might have an identity to give the rest of the conference fits.
Between now and the March 25 trade deadline, Morey and Rivers will surely evaluate wills to ratchet up the dynamism of this team. But with Harden no longer an option, the Sixers’ best path forward will involve playing to its most obvious strength.