Clinging to a five-point lead with about five minutes to play during a game at Toronto late last month, 76ers forward Tobias Harris initially corralled the rebound off a missed three-pointer by Pascal Siakam. But the Raptors’ Chris Boucher took the ball from Harris’ grasp, which led to D.J. Wilson drawing a foul under the basket and sinking the two free throws to make it a one-possession game.

Following the closer-than-it-needed-to-be victory, Harris singled out that moment as one the Sixers need “to be more cognizant of the importance of it — including myself.” Considering how much Harris’ team has struggled with rebounding for the bulk of the season, the Sixers certainly cannot afford to fumble away the easy ones. They entered Thursday ranked last in the NBA in rebounds per game (42.1 per game) and offensive rebounds per game (8.3) and 27th out of 30 teams in rebounding percentage (48.2), a sharp tumble from when they ranked in the league’s top 10 in overall rebounding (10th, 45.1 per game) and rebounding percentage (eighth, 51.1) last season.

Signs of improvement in that facet — including a new-look lineup with Joel Embiid and Andre Drummond playing together and guards getting more involved — have appeared during the Sixers’ stretch of 10 wins in their past 12 games. Yet when coach Doc Rivers was asked prior to Wednesday’s home game against Orlando the area the Sixers most need to shore up, the coach said rebounding first.

“It’s no secret,” Rivers said. “We’ve been awful, and now we’re getting better at it. We’re doing it more. … Just all hands on deck there, because that’s a killer for you. We’re too good defensively to just keep giving the ball back.”

Rebounding is an underrated area where the Sixers miss Ben Simmons, whose size and athleticism helped him average 8.1 per game in his career. Without him, it was reasonable to expect this problem given how undersized the Sixers are except at center. Starting guards Tyrese Maxey and Seth Curry are both listed at 6-foot-2, while Harris plays power forward at 6-foot-8.

Still, it’s jarring that a team with Embiid, who has averaged 11.2 rebounds throughout his career, and Drummond, who is statistically one of the best rebounders in NBA history, has been this poor most of the season.

Those rebounding figures have risen slightly during the past 12 games, to 44.1 rebounds per game (20th in the NBA during that period), 9.3 offensive rebounds per game (23rd), and a rebounding percentage of 49.9 (17th). Where those improvements have had the most impact, however, are in the decrease in second-chance points allowed (12 per game during this period, which ranks eighth in the NBA, compared to their season mark of 13.6 per game, which ranks 21st) and fast-break points allowed (12.4 per game during this period, which ranks 15th, compared to 14.1 on the season, which ranks 29th) and in the sharper defensive efficiency (106.2 points allowed per 100 possessions, which ranks sixth in the league during this period).

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Embiid, whose 10.5 rebounds per game this season entering Wednesday are a slight dip from his career average, said recently that more emphasis on rebounding must start with him because “I’ve been lazy.” And the most obvious way the Sixers have tried to beef up that aspect has been putting Embiid and Drummond on the floor at the same time for what teammate Danny Green dubbed the “King Kong/Godzilla lineup.”

Rivers and players say the idea had been percolating for several weeks. During shootaround the day after Christmas, the perimeter players scrimmaged against the big men (Drummond was in COVID-19 health and safety protocols). Less than two weeks later, as the Magic’s rebounding edge ballooned to 27-18 at the half and did not get much better in the third quarter, Drummond said Rivers kept eyeballing him on the bench and eventually said “‘Go ahead. Go get Tobias.”

That lineup helped lift the Sixers to a 116-106 victory. Rivers unveiled it again during last week’s 109-98 loss to Charlotte, though said after the game that was more for a change of pace while getting blasted. The coach did not use the lineup during Wednesday’s rematch against the Magic, when the Sixers had a 43-42 rebounding edge and allowed seven second-change points.

“You can’t do it every night,” Rivers said. “You’ve got to have the right matchups. I get rebounding, but you also have to guard the three-point line and guard a lot of actions. There’s a lot of teams that will allow us to do it with what they have on the floor. There may be a night when we do it anyway, just to create a matchup.”

Rivers also highlighted some of the more subtle bigger lineups the Sixers have used recently, including playing Embiid (or Drummond), Harris, and Georges Niang on the floor at the same time, to assist with rebounding. Guards being more willing to “stick their nose in there” has perhaps been an even bigger help, the coach added. Furkan Korkmaz recorded 11 rebounds in a Jan. 3 win over Houston and has totaled at least five in six of his past nine games. Curry had seven in back-to-back games against the Magic and Spurs two weeks ago, and eight on Wednesday night against the Magic.

“The ball [is] just finding me,” Curry said. “Just hanging there in the paint and going back trying to get rebounds. When I get rebounds, I’m able to push the ball up the floor and we can get some good action offensively.”

Assistant Dan Burke, the Sixers’ defensive specialist who served as acting head coach when Rivers was in health and safety protocols, said an early indicator of rebounding potential is sound position defense. When a ballhandler beats his man and creates a scramble situation, “now it’s hard to put bodies on bodies” to secure the ball off a miss, Burke said.

“If you limit rotations and we can control the ball first, execute that first help, not need a second or third help, it’s easier to box out,” Burke said. “But if you’re just flying around, you’re not gonna get to bodies.”

Sixers players and coaches acknowledge they often sacrifice their own offensive rebounding opportunities in order to get back in transition defense, another area where they have struggled this season. Wing Matisse Thybulle, who is currently out with a shoulder sprain, crashing the glass a couple times in a Dec. 30 win at Brooklyn is an example of when the Sixers can unleash that strategy depending on the situation.

“A lot of times I’m guarding the guy who took the shot,” Thybulle said. “So it’s hard to try to contest — I mean, I’m trying to block the shot — and then go rebound. But I think if it’s a point of emphasis, you can do it. And I think that’s kind of the moral of the story is just making it at the forefront of your mind to make an impact in that aspect of the game.”

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The Sixers have taken some unconventional approaches to drill rebounding in recent weeks. During a Sunday evening practice in early January, Burke created a game called “hit the coach,” giving players permission to get physical while assistants and player-development staffers crashed the glass.

“Hopefully, some of that carries over,” Burke said after that practice.

As the recent numbers indicate, some of it has. Yet it is still glaring when the rebounding issues resurface.

Rivers said a defining sequence during that loss to Charlotte was when “it felt like they had nine shots at the basket” (in reality, it was three opportunities after two offensive rebounds). During the first half of Saturday’s win at Miami, Embiid hit the floor while grabbing a rebound, was surrounded by three Heat players and eventually had the ball wrestled away with no foul call. And late in Monday’s loss at Washington, an easy rebound bounced off Niang’s hands and out of bounds, which ultimately led to a Montrezl Harrell dunk during the Wizards’ decisive surge to pull away.

“That’s something we’re continuing to address, but it’s gonna have to be a collective unit every night,” Niang said. “It’s not on the bigs or the forwards. It’s on all five of us out there, getting a hit boxing out, going after the rebound. I think it’s multiple-effort.”