Ahead of Game 3 vs. Nets, Sixers know details matter with spacing, zone defense

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Sixers know details matter with spacing, zone D as series shifts to Brooklyn originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The fact that the Sixers won Game 2 of their first-round series Monday night vs. the Nets did not lead them to conclude they were fine in the first half.

“We showed it on film today: Our spacing was terrible in the entire first half,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said following practice Wednesday. “Even when James (Harden) did get in the paint, there were two of our guys standing there. … I think our spacing was really poor in transition especially, and that’s where it has to be at its best.

“We have to run wide. We had too many guards, too many threes, fours running down the middle of the floor where they should be running out wide. And we didn’t do that, for whatever reason.”

The Sixers’ spacing was indeed often far from textbook. That didn’t make scoring impossible, but the team’s offense was much less successful than in the series opener. The Sixers used Brooklyn’s double teams on Joel Embiid to create brisk ball movement and leave the Nets a step or two behind in a blowout Game 1 victory.

After Tyrese Maxey circled along the baseline on a second-quarter play Monday, Danuel House Jr. and De’Anthony Melton ended up directly next to each other on the left wing. That’s not the ideal thing for Embiid to see as he begins a drive from the top of the key.

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Embiid and the Sixers have been frustrated not to see James Harden draw any free throws through the series’ first two games. He’ll presumably get a borderline call or two soon enough against his former team.

Regardless, Harden has regularly commented on the importance of precise spacing around him.

“I think if you’ve got spacing, it doesn’t matter what teams do (defensively),” Harden said before the series. “If you have guys in the right positions, I can get into the paint and I can create a shot or get a good shot for somebody.”

Spacing (and officiating) were obviously not the sole reasons Harden shot 3 for 13 from the floor in Game 2. Still, there have been a couple of noticeable moments when suboptimal spacing made his job running the Sixers’ second unit a bit more difficult.

Jalen McDaniels, who’s listed as questionable for Game 3 Thursday night with a non-COVID illness, has played with Harden for a little over two months. He’s understood that cutting, rolling, and screening to create favorable switches — like Seth Curry vs. Harden — tend to be worthwhile.

However, when a pass doesn’t come his way inside, the Sixers need McDaniels to be diligent about swiftly relocating. If McDaniels hadn’t waited a beat after rolling on the play below, perhaps the 25-year-old wing would have presented Harden with a slightly clearer drive-and-kick option.

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Ultimately, Harden still got the isolation look he wanted against Curry and failed to score. But as the series shifts to Brooklyn, the Sixers want to be sharper with these smaller details to help their stars.

“Part of that is discipline,” Rivers said of why spacing issues have persisted. “Part of that is the guy who cuts sees an opening, and he does it once. And then he does it again and again because he keeps looking for it. But it’s probably a little bit of both. It’s slippage too sometimes. You just have slippage during the year.

“I always tell this to my assistants: If you could work on your list, we would be in practice for 15 hours. Through the year, you can’t work on it all. So sometimes you have slippage in games. And you see it coming in the game, and you try to work on it.”

One area the Sixers found time to drill throughout this season is zone defense. It served them well on several occasions during the regular season, disrupting opponents’ rhythm and preventing teams from targeting weaker perimeter defenders.

In Game 2, the Sixers’ zone played a major role in their third-quarter turnaround.

“I feel like last game, it definitely slowed them down,” De’Anthony Melton said Wednesday. “Everybody was out there flying around, stunting, getting back to shooters. They hit a couple of tough shots, but that’s going to happen. But our zone definitely changed the game for us. It allowed us to play with more pace, get rebounds, and get out in transition.”

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The team’s execution in the zone was impressive. Tyrese Maxey closed out hard on the sharpshooting Cameron Johnson, Embiid protected the rim, and Harden sunk down nicely to pick up one of his four steals and fuel a fast break.

Both Rivers and Maxey highlighted the Sixers’ goal of limiting the Nets’ corner three attempts. P.J. Tucker is dependable for savvy plays like stunting out at Dorian Finney-Smith and preventing a pass to Royce O’Neale in the corner. As long as they’re not wide open, the Sixers won’t mind more Finney-Smith threes from the wing.

While the Sixers expect the Nets to improve in front of their home crowd, the team certainly doesn’t think it will be doomed if another speed bump like Game 2’s first half pops up Thursday at Barclays Center.

“For our team right now, I think we’re just extremely focused, dialed in on the situation, the task at hand,” Maxey said. “Guys are leading; P.J. Tucker’s really leading. Joel’s leading. James and our veterans — Tobias — those guys are really leading right now. And us as young guys, we’re just following them and giving them our best support that we possibly can.”

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