Thursday, January 19, 2017

The best defensive team in the NBA

Block Party
Tonight in South Philly, the Sixers were trying to beat Toronto, pretty much the clear second-best team in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors had won the last 14 games in the series, mostly because they have one of the best five backcourts in the NBA, and for the past five years, the Sixers have employed a collection of circus animals to play guard.

Having led most of the night, we knew how this game was going to end. Toronto would get Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan heated up, the Sixers would turn it over at the offensive end, the refs wouldn't bail them out, and we'd all console ourselves with how hard they tried, and how they were getting closer to getting over the hump.

And then Dario Saric happened.

Dario is the Sixers' second-best rookie so far this year, which is to say, he's a guy that no one is paying much attention to. He started off the year well, hit the rookie wall when his Euro levels of conditioning failed him, and has picked it up recently. But he's 6'-9", has 3-point range, some handle, and cares about defense. He's growing on us, honestly.

Normal Powell tried to get to the rim off a pass, and Saric pretty much ate it; straight up, startling athleticism, just a great play. The ball went to the corner, was retrieved by the Raps, and the Raps' Jared Sullinger, a big that's taller than Saric, took it to the rack and tried to dunk it. Saric pretty much ate that, too, as the crowd erupted in a way that it hasn't, really, in the better part of a decade. Joel Embiid leaped off the bench, the Sixers' descended on Saric en masse like he had just hit a walk-off home run, and suddenly, winning this game seemed much more likely, because it was possible that Toronto, and everyone else who played the Sixers, might never score again.

By the way, that all happened with eight minutes left in the game.

Fast forward to 35 seconds left. The Sixers are holding a four point lead. Lowry is outside of the three-point line, and he's covered by Robert Covington, the Sixers' best wing defender... and RoCo is on him like paint, eventually blocking (!) a 28-foot (!) three point attempt. Lowry collects the loose ball and drives the lane, only to encounter Embiid, who stuffs him at the 6-foot line, collects the ball, and also the foul from Lowry. Just an astounding collection of stops, all in rapid succession, against one of the league's best, who was having a good night to boot. (Oh, and by the way? Embiid had the flu, and still had 20-9-2 in 26 minutes, which is his 10th straight game with 20+ points. Dude is that good.)

with the win, the Sixers move to 14-26, still a half dozen games out of the 8th spot in the East and the chance to get some national TV attention while losing to the Cavaliers, but all of that is really besides the point. They might get there, especially if Ben Simmons really does make his debut after the All-Star Break, and gives them a boost a point guard. (TJ McConnell is totally adorable and the team has been winning with him recently, but he's really not the long-term answer as a starter.)

No, what's important is that this has become a startlingly good defensive team, which is the reason why they are now 7-3 in their last 10. (Even more impressive, it's 7 of their last 8 when Embiid is in the lineup.) Covington is one of the NBA's leaders in steals and deflections, Nerlens Noel has always been a stopper, Embiid can do it all, and as we saw tonight, Saric is joining in the fun. They kept Toronto to 39.5% from the floor tonight, and won despite a -13 margin in turnovers. For a team that used to have absolutely no margin for error, well, now they have one.

Next up is Friday at home against Portland, a game that they'll really need to win, because Embiid won't be around for the Saturday night loss in Atlanta. The week after gives them a Clipper team without Chris Paul or Blake Griffin at home, then another game without Embiid in Milwaukee. Unless they win a game without their stud center, the playoff drive probably is going to be on hold until Simmons returns...

But again, beyond the point. This is now one of the best defensive teams in the Association, and as Memphis has shown for most of the last decade, that's an exotic enough thing to win more games than you might think.

And when you stuff guys all over the floor?

Fun as hell to watch, too.

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