Before the Philadelphia 76ers opened their season against the Boston Celtics, head coach Brett Brown addressed the media regarding the match-up. Brown said he had an “appropriate fear” when it came to how his jumbo-sized lineup would stick with the Celtics smaller and quicker group.
It’s easy to see why Brown may have had some trepidation. The Celtics have speed and ball-handling at positions one through four in their starting lineup. When looking down each roster, there is a clear and immediate question — who does Al Horford guard?
While conventional wisdom would say Gordon Hayward, Horford actually started the game on Jaylen Brown. The move paid dividends, as Brown was held to eight points and seven rebounds on 3-6 shooting. Some of that was due to foul trouble, as Brown only played 21 minutes in the game and accumulated five personal fouls.
Horford still held his own against the fourth-year swing-man, forcing him into tough shots when Brown tried to isolate.
Embiid missed the box out on this one and gave up a basket, but that is still great defense by Horford on a quicker player.
Horford displayed his versatility all night as he seamlessly transitioned into the center role while Embiid rested. Here is Horford guarding the Celtics pick-and-roll. He does a great job of positioning himself to guard both Kemba Walker’s drive and the lob to Robert Williams, shutting down the action.
Horford was not alone in his defensive performance. The other new addition, Josh Richardson, made his mark as well. Richardson played a large role in holding Walker to 4-18 shooting on the night.
Richardson displayed his impressive ability to fight over screens and get back in position to contest. On the game’s opening possession, he immediately set the tone by forcing Jayson Tatum into a tough mid-range step-back.
Richardson also excelled at guarding off-ball. Here he is chasing Walker around multiple screens and into a dribble hand-off. Richardson stays tight the whole way and is able to get close enough to force a miss.
This was something the 76ers were sorely lacking last season when their defensive rating hovered around the middle of the NBA pack. They just didn’t have the personnel to hang with guards like Walker.
Take these two plays from last season. Jimmy Butler was tasked with guarding Walker. Butler, while a very good one-on-one defender, was unable to navigate screens as effectively as Richardson. Walker scored 60 points that night, in part, because of Butler’s inability to stay with him.
The 76ers did not have a discernible scheme change in this game compared to last season. The bigs still dropped back on the pick-and-roll with the hope of forcing the ball-handler into a pull-up jumper. The only difference here was that Richardson and, to a lesser extent, Thybulle, made those jumpers and floaters very difficult.
And, while the guards were the difference-makers at the point of attack, Joel Embiid was still the dominant force in the middle that held this team together on the defensive end. Philadelphia posted a 72.5 defensive rating while Embiid was on the court in, per NBA.com.
Embiid’s presence can make even the best finishers think twice about attempting a layup. Here, Kemba makes the decision to pull up for a tricky jump shot rather than go all the way and attempt to finish.
While the sum of their play was an impressive defensive statement, the performance was not without its flaws. The 76ers, as a byproduct of their intensity, were in foul trouble most of the night. They also were the beneficiaries of some poor Celtic shooting.
Thybulle has a tendency to get caught leaning to one side when guarding a ball-handler one-on-one. His recovery ability is already elite, and he can make his way back into the play quickly, but this also leads to him picking up fouls when guarding a savvy player who can stop on a dime like Walker. Thybulle picked up three quick fouls in the first half of the game and finished with five.
The rookie was not alone. Embiid, Horford, and James Ennis also finished with five fouls, while Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson each ended the game with four.
Basketball Insiders asked Brown about the foul trouble and how it relates to the intensity on the defensive end. The head coach noted he was okay with the hacking on opening night.
“I mean, I’d rather water something down than demand it, and keep harping on it. So if my problem is we’re playing that hard and we’re fouling too much, I’ll take that on opening night.” Brown continued. “Inevitably, you can’t just whack people, stop the clock, and send them to the line. I thought our feet were good, I thought our hands were poor. But I think it’s a good problem to have.”
When you hold a team to 93 points, Brown is right that some foul trouble is no reason to sound the alarm. The 76ers will have plenty of time to correct that issue as the season goes on.
An area that brought a lot of criticism last season was the 76xers’ ability to force turnovers. Philadelphia was only able to generate 11 turnovers against the Celtics, so there was no immediate improvement in that department.
As mentioned, the 76ers did not make any major scheme changes to spark that turnover creation. There was no trapping ball-handlers like the 2013 Miami HEAT. Instead, Philadelphia stuck to their principles and the talent on the roster made it work.
The 76ers did experiment with some of those aggressive tactics in the preseason, but when you are forcing the Celtics into tough shots as much as they were, there was no reason to roll the dice.
Going forward it will be interesting to watch this team coalesce on the defensive end. This was certainly an auspicious first step.
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