Doc Rivers will tell you it’s all about good preparation, and having good defensive players.
In the early going to the season, the 76ers have established themselves as the NBA’s best defensive team. They headed into Saturday’s game against the Charlotte Hornets as the league leaders in defensive rating, opponents’ field-goal percentage, and blocks per game.
And they played like it in a wire-to-wire 127-112 victory at the Wells Fargo Center. This was the first of a two-game series with the Hornets (2-4) at the arena. The teams will meet again on Monday at 7 p.m.
“Ben has been, in my opinion, as good as anyone in the league defensively,” Rivers said. “Then having Joel to back him up, that combination defensively allows you to do a lot of things that you probably wouldn’t do when you have the size of those two guys.”
The 6-foot-10 Simmons is an on-the-ball defender, while the 7-foot-2 Embiid protects the basket. Their size and talent allow the Sixers to be aggressive.
“I think they have the potential, both of them, to be defensive player of the year with their size, ability, reflexes, their footwork,” veteran Danny Green said.
Green pointed out that Simmons can defend all five positions, while Embiid can protect the paint like no other.
On Saturday, the Sixers (5-1) held the Hornets to 39.8% shooting in the first half with the All-Star duo leading the way. For the game, the squad blocked seven shots, and collected 10 steals.
The Sixers were also stellar on offense, and Rivers knows why.
“We’re putting so much pressure on the defense that we can strike early,” he said. “The floor is wide open for Ben to get into the paint and create action. That’s what we want.”
Like on most nights, the Sixers got the ball up the floor with Simmons finding shooters. They also threw the ball to Embiid in the post. Whenever teams trap him, including the Hornets, the spacing has been good and it has led to three-point attempts.
The Sixers made a season-high 16 three-pointers on 35 attempts. Twelve of their threes came before intermission. Philly shot 59.5 % from the field overall and assisted on 35 of its 47 made baskets. This came two nights after the Sixers made 15 threes in 33 attempts in a 24-point road victory over the Orlando Magic.
“It’s tough to take that away,” Simmons said of the three-point shooting. “If you take that away than Joel has his post-up games. Guys aren’t able to help in the lanes when I drive. So it’s a tough matchup. … When we play like that it’s tough” on defenses.
On this night, Simmons finished with 15 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists for his first triple-double of the season and 29th of his career. Only Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and Nikola Jokic have more triple-double since the start of Simmons’ rookie season in 2017-18.
Meanwhile, Tobias Harris had his fourth consecutive stellar game, dominating on both sides of the ball.
The power forward scored 24 points while making 4 of 7 three-pointers. He also had nine rebounds and a game-high three blocks to go with four steals. Not bad for a player known as a defensive liability when the Sixers acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers in February 2019.
“When I see him doing that, that motivates everybody to continue doing their job,” Simmons said of Harris’ defense. “Because when Tobias came here he wasn’t where he is now, and he stepped it up … He’s made a huge leap from the past year to now defensively.”
Offensively and defensively, Harris has been a major factor for the Sixers.
“And he’s going to be if we want to win a championship,” Simmons added.
The Sixers’ other starters — Seth Curry (21 points), Embiid (19 points, 14 rebounds), Danny Green (13 points), and reserve guard Shake Milton (18 points) — scored in double figures. If there was negative, it was the Sixers’ 22 turnovers, with 16 after intermission.
Charlotte point guard Terry Rozier led all scorers with 35 points while making 7 of 11 three-pointers.
The Sixers were without two key reserves. Mike Scott missed his first game of the season with a hurting left knee, while Furkan Korkmaz sat out his third straight game after suffering a left groin strain.
“It’s just bad luck, and terrible position,” Korkmaz said of the injury. “It’s not something like a big injury, you know. It’s just like something small, but it will put you out a couple of weeks. That’s why I was so [ticked] off.
“But this happens, you know, I got through a lot of things. So I will get through this.”
The fourth-year guard said, in regards to treatment, that he’s doing “mobilization stuff,” stretching and weight training. He’s also doing on-court drills focused on making the injured area stronger.
At the time of his injury, the Sixers said Korkmaz would be reevaluated in two weeks.
Scott suffered his injury in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s win over the Orlando Magic. He will be reevaluated in the coming days.
But on Saturday night, they weren’t needed.
Asked how he likes the “baseball-style” two-game series, Rivers said, “I’ll let you know.”
The NBA implemented these series as a way to cut travel during the pandemic. Teams play two consecutive games in the same city against each other on back-to-back nights or over three days. The Sixers are participating in their first of five series this season.
“I’ve been one of the guys, years ago, I championed it,” Rivers said, “because I just think that second game, I don’t care who you are, it’s a tough game. So I think it brings more excitement. … But, yeah, I think I like it. I’ll let you know by Tuesday.”
But Charlotte coach James Borrego likes it.
To him, it’s like a mini-series or a little playoff-type setting.
“You get to unpack a little bit in a city,” he said. “When you play a team twice, I love the chess match you get to prepare for the same team, come back for the second right.”
Borrego hopes it stays past this season. He likes it for the travel.
“I think it’s good for our guys to settle into a series a little bit fresher,” he said.