Ever since the preseason, 76ers coach Doc Rivers has talked about the importance of having a strong defense, especially on nights when the shots aren’t falling in.
The defense has lived up to expectations and will have to continue, especially since the Sixers will be without two starters for Saturday’s 8 p.m. game against the Sacramento Kings at the Wells Fargo Center.
Joel Embiid will miss his fourth straight game since suffering a left knee bone bruise during last Friday’s 127-101 win at Washington.
The Sixers announced on Friday that Seth Curry is out for at least two games with a left ankle sprain. Curry, who has had ankle issues all season, suffered the latest injury in the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s 109-105 overtime home loss to Milwaukee.
He will be reevaluated after the two weekend back-to-back games, which also includes Sunday’s matchup against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
Curry, who is averaging 12.9 points and shooting 43.2% from three-point range, missed a 122-109 loss at Brooklyn on Jan. 7 with a left ankle injury. During that game, he found out he had tested positive for COVID-19 and missed the next six games. He was also sidelined with left ankle soreness during a 109-102 win over Toronto in Tampa on Feb. 23. In that game, Furkan Korkmaz started in his place.
Following Friday’s practice, Rivers said he wasn’t ready to announce the starter for Curry.
“You can guess; it is down to a couple of guys,” he said.
If not Korkmaz, it could be Matisse Thybulle, who started in last week’s road wins at Chicago and Washington when Ben Simmons was out due to health and safety protocols (contact tracing).
A main reason for the Sixers’ 28-13 record has been the defense. Entering Friday, they were second in the league in defensive rating, allowing 107.3 points per 100 possessions.
The Sixers’ last two games, a 99-96 win over the New York Knicks and Wednesday’s loss to Milwaukee, have been grind-it-out affairs, more in line with what the playoffs are about.
Danny Green, who is considered among the Sixers’ better defenders, says communication has been the key to the Sixers defense, although nothing beats having talent.
“The pieces we have, Ben [Simmons], Matisse [Thybulle], myself, Tobias [Harris] has been playing defense like he has never played before,” Green said. “We get Seth on that page, Dwight [Howard], Tony Bradley when Joel is out.”
And of course there is Embiid, who erases a lot others’ mistakes on defense with his ability to protect the rim.
“Joel, being the rim protector that he is, we have such great length,” Green said.
Rivers said he has been pleased with the defense with one exception -- defending in transition.
The statistics show why he is so unhappy.
Entering Friday, the Sixers were last in the NBA in transition defense, allowing 16.0 fast-break points per game, according to NBA.com stats.
With so many players in and out of the lineup this season due to injury and health and safety protocols, Rivers was asked if the transition defense will get better as the chemistry improves.
“No, that gets better by getting back and I’m serious on that one,” said Rivers, mincing no words. “We’ve got to have better discipline.”
That said, the discipline has been there in other defensive aspects.
Sacramento has been the anti-Sixers when it comes to defense. The Kings, who will be playing the second of a back-to-back after Friday’s game in Boston, entered Friday last in the NBA in defensive rating (118.5).
The Sixers took advantage of that leaky defense in their first meeting, outscoring the Kings, 32-20, in the fourth quarter of a 119-111 win in Sacramento on Feb. 9.