SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Defense is all about effort, passion and commitment, so they say.
But what if you don’t have the right personnel, scheme and there’s a lack of communication? As the 76ers are finding out, no amount of effort, passion or commitment matters without those three things.
Monday’s game against the San Antonio Spurs is the latest example of that.
Joel Embiid might be the most passionate player in the NBA and one of the best rim protector. Yet, he’s overmatched when defending guys like LaMarcus Aldridge, who can step out and bury jumpers. Reserve guard T.J. McConnell is as gritty as they come. He gives optimum effort and is committed to playing defense. But you can’t expect him to stop DeMar DeRozan from getting to the rim.
Following the 123-96 loss at AT&T Center, Sixers coach Brett Brown said his “we didn’t come with a spirit.”
Embiid disagrees with his coach’s assessment.
“I don’t think it was the spirit,” the All-Star center said. “We played hard. It wasn’t enough. Like I said, it wasn’t the spirit. These guys they know that every time we get on the court, it’s about playing hard fighting for each other.”
But they struggled all night on the defensive end against the Spurs. That has been the norm against formidable foes. San Antonio is much better than its 16-15 record would indicate. Monday’s victory was its fifth in its last six games.
An inability to make stops due to poor defenders led to the Sixers having a 1-5 record against the Eastern Conference’s elite teams —Toronto Raptors (0-2), Milwaukee Bucks (0-1), Indiana Pacers (1-1) and Boston Celtics (0-1).
But it is nothing new.
The Sixers had defensive shortcoming last season. That led to their being ousted in five games in their second-round playoff series with the Boston Celtics.
But things are worse this season, especially when the reserves are on the floor.
Rookie shooting guard Landry Shamet and second-year swingman Furkan Korkmaz are solid three-pointer shooters. However, their defensive shortcoming are on full display night in and night out.
The Sixers also are more often than not a victim of their tactic of switching on defense instead of fighting through screens. That has led to opponents seeking out preferred mismatches off switches.
They also need to do a better job when teams rotate the ball.
“We struggle a lot with that,” Embiid said. “We always talk about first-shot defense. We are really great at it. What about the second one? What about when you stop the first action? We struggle a lot.”
They also struggle against players who can take their men off the dribble, creating their own shots.
The Sixers need more communication, especially in middle pick-and-rolls against big men who can shoot from the outside.
The season’s new defensive strategy is for Embiid to protect the rim on most occasions. It’s up to his teammates to guard the opposing team’s center when he leaves the paint.
But that doesn’t always work in middle pick-and-roll defense.
“The team wants me back,” Embiid said, “and I stay back and guards just come out and just pull up from mid-range. Then you come up and the big man gets a dunk.”
That happens a lot when he’s facing fundamentally sound centers who can step out and make mid-range shots.
All these things have led to the Sixers defensive struggles.