There was a time, this season, when the 76ers' victories were attributed to being the more talented team.
That often meant they had beaten less talented teams and lost to the NBA’s elite squads. Well that was until recently.
The Sixers (31-17) won two of their first three games of a 12-game stretch against teams with winning records. They’ll look to add another solid win Wednesday night against the San Antonio Spurs at the Wells Fargo Center.
They are coming off Monday’s impressive 121-93 victory over the Houston Rockets. That came two days after a 117-115 heartbreaking loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. But they opened this stretch Thursday night with a 120-96 road win over the Indiana Pacers.
The Pacers (31-15) boast the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. The 26-20 Rockets are fifth in the Western Conference. The Sixers came within a missed three-pointer at the buzzer from knocking off the Thunder (28-18, heading into Tuesday night’s game against Portland), the West’s third-best squad.
“I think people are finally buying into the defense and playing together as an offense,” said Wilson Chandler. “The ball is moving a lot more than what it was.”
Offensively, the Sixers' three stars, Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, and Ben Simmons, along with sharpshooter JJ Redick, are learning to co-exist better. Chandler has contributed more, especially early on. The reserves were solid in the victories over the Rockets and Pacers.
But the team’s biggest improvement has come on the defensive end.
On Monday, they knew James Harden, the league’s leading scorer at 35.7 points, was going to get his. However, he’s at his best when also distributing to teammates. So the Sixers' goal was to shut down his supporting cast.
Harden had 37 points in what was his 20th consecutive game with at least 32 points. However, his three assists were 5.3 below his season average. This goes to the combined shooting of the Rockets' other two starting quards, Austin Rivers and Eric Gordon. They were 2-for-18 for eight points. Rivers failed to score and missed all five of his shots, including four three-pointers, in 26 minutes, 34 seconds of action. Gordon went 2-for-13 from the field en route to finishing with the eight points. As a team, the Rockets were held to 36 percent shooting and made only 11 of 42 three-pointers.
The Pacers shot 40.2 percent from the field, ending a streak of two games and seven of their previous nine shooting 50 percent or better. The Sixers held Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner to a combined 7-for-25 shooting. Oladipo had 15 points on 6-for-20 shooting, and Turner had eight while shooting 1-for-5.
In addition to implementing a new defensive scheme, the Sixers added several new players via trades and the draft last offseason. Chandler said unfamiliarity with one another and the new defense could have been the cause of some of the early defensive woes.
However, the Sixers have recently tweaked their help-side defense obligations, which also has led to the defensive improvement.
“There’s a sophisticated low man nowadays; you better coach as it is related to appropriate and inappropriate help,” coach Brett Brown said. "That thing John Wooden says, ‘Don’t mistake activity for achievement’ is over, or you are going to get torched on the backside of a stuff with a three-point shot.”
On Wednesday, the Sixers face a Spurs squad (27-21) that leads the NBA in three-point percentage (40.4). This is why they have zoned in to clean up their mistakes in that area, to get the perimiter covered.
If an opponent is running a slowly developing isolation play, the Sixers would prefer that Joel Embiid slides down to low-post floor spot. But if it’s a catch-and-go situation, there’s not enough time for the center to get to the spot. So another teammate (possibly Simmons) must get to the spot.
“The communication, the reads and us doing this as a team, led by me as a head coach, we do this together," Brown said. “That’s when you get group buying. That’s when they got to own stuff."
“That’s just one example, a big example of the things I think we are beginning to all get on the same page and get better at defensively.”