The Launching Pad: Gearing up for the Sixers
Welcome to a special edition of The Launching Pad, normally a weekly roundup of Miami Heat basketball. For this piece, I’ll be previewing the Heat-Sixers matchup from the perspective of a coach. I am not a coach, at all, but I do enjoy watching and breaking down film, so I figured I’d give it a shot. Quick shoutout to Steve Jones (@stevejones20) and Dylan Murphy (@DylanTMurphy) at Cleaning The Glass (@cleantheglass) for inspiring this piece. You can find theirs, here.
• Josh Richardson — Ben Simmons
• Tyler Johnson — JJ Redick
• Goran Dragic — Robert Covington
• James Johnson — Dario Saric
• Hassan Whiteside — Joel Embiid/Amir Johnson
Top priority on defense: Getting back as quickly as possible
Philly wants to push, push, and push some more. They rank fourth in pace this season. They’re in the top six in transition possessions, percentage of possessions in transition, and points scored in transition via Synergy. They’ll also run after makes — they’re second in the league in seconds per possession after made shots. Any laziness on our end will lead to a Ben Simmons throw-ahead for an easy bucket.
Their shooters leak to the corners quickly in an effort to clear the driving lanes. Forget offensive rebounds unless the advantage is obvious. Run back as soon as the shot is up, and match-up as quickly as possible.
Sixers Team Stats (vs. Miami in parenthesis)
• Offensive Rating: 107.4 (101.0)
• True Shooting Percentage: 56.8 (53.0)
• Assist Percentage: 66.3 (70.7)
• Turnover Rate: 16.1 (17.4)
• Pace: 102.2 (100.18)
• Free-Throw Attempts: 22.8 (21.0)
• Free-Throw Percentage: 75.2 (75.0)
• Three-Point Attempts: 29.8 (31.8)
• Three-Point Percentage: 36.9 (34.6)
• Offensive Rebounds: 10.9 (12.8)
Sixers Play Type Breakdown
Defending Joel Embiid
Embiid is one of the most talented bigs in the league. He averaged 23-11-3 (48-31-77 shooting split on the year, though Miami was able to limit him in his three appearances (17-9-4, 41/38/64). He’s their go-to weapon when the shot clock is winding down. Loves getting the ball in the mid-post; he’ll face up against slower defenders, or flat-out punish smaller ones.
1. Arms up, body down
The Hakeem Olajuwon comparisons aren’t far off in terms of style in the post. He gets giddy when a guy falls for a pump fake. He has top tier footwork; he’ll slip right under you if you’re aggressive. Body him up until he gathers, then contest without leaving your feet (in most cases) to force him to finish over the top while limiting fouls.
Watch how James Johnson bodies him here while shading him to the baseline. He doesn’t fall for the fake, then strips him cleanly on the way up.
That’s what you want.
2. Force him left
He’s much better on the left block (88th percentile) than the right block (50th percentile). He’s right-hand dominant. Sometimes he tries too hard to get back to his right, something that can get him in trouble against length:
When he’s on the left block, make a concerted effort to force him baseline (without fouling). On the right block, push him towards the middle to force him into a fadeaway or a lefty hook. He will try to reverse course — or at least act like it. In that case, stay down and force a tough look. Embiid will make some tough shots because he’s that darn good. Forcing him out of his comfort zone can tilt him towards “All-star” instead of “superstar.”
3. Muck it up when you can
You’d rather give up a two than a three, but you also don’t want Embiid getting comfortable. One-on-one coverage with minimum help is the move, but defenders should be able to dig aggressively without getting beat too often. Embiid is an improving passer, but he’s not making quick-enough reads yet. He can be turned over (15.9 percent turnover rate on post-ups, via Synergy) if the help is smart and aggressive.
Watch how quickly Josh Richardson sinks in and flashes his hands. That should be an easy kick-out to Robert Covington, a darn-good three-point shooter, but Embiid wasn’t quick enough to diagnose it.
Defending Ben Simmons
Simmons isn’t just the eventual Rookie of the Year; he’s already a borderline top-20 player, even without a jumper. He’s a freight train with elite passing chops. His averages against Miami (15-8-7, 53/0/60) aren’t far off his regular season averages (16-8-8, 55/0/56), though he’s hit a different level since the last meeting with Miami.
1. Get back in transition
Simmons is at his best — and most terrifying — when he gets a full head of steam. Miami doesn’t have anyone on the roster that matches his three S’s: size, speed, and strength. The key here will be doing the homework early — getting back as quickly as possible, and matching up as quickly as possible.
In the video below, Miami actually does a solid job of getting back. Still, Simmons got rolling downhill, and nobody attempted to disrupt his path with a quick dig or anything. Johnson did a decent job of contesting, but it was too late at that point.
Here is an example of what you want.
Watch how quickly Miami gets back and matches up. Peep Goran Dragic tag Joel Embiid on the dive, as well as Tyler Johnson’s dig on the Simmons drive. This is also great work by Richardson to contest without fouling.
2. Make him a jump-shooter in pick-and-roll
Simmons can’t shoot. At all. Everyone knows this. Playing gap defense against Simmons is the move here, even if that opens up more passing angles for him.
In pick-and-rolls featuring Simmons and a big not named Dario Saric, Simmons’ defender should go under while the big drops. This isn’t foolproof. Amir Johnson and Embiid (when he wants to) are great screeners, and you don’t want to have a big on an island against Simmons too often. Embiid can knock down threes, but he’s very streaky at this point of his career. You can live with him becoming a jump shooter — tip your cap if he gets hot.
Protecting the rim should be first priority. You can live with these kind of looks from Simmons.
(Chris Paul has to be somewhere crying. Nobody would ever give him an elbow jumper on purpose.)
If Simmons wants to run a screen-roll with Saric, switching is going to be the best course of action. You don’t want Saric (44.8 percent from three vs Miami this season) getting open looks on the pop.
3. Ignore the big when Philly goes to Swing Slice Punch 1 (post-up play for Ben Simmons)
First, quick shout out to Dylan Murphy of Cleaning The Glass for the play name.
The set is relatively simple. The ball swings around the perimeter while Simmons hangs around the baseline. Then, a guard (typically JJ Redick or Marco Belinelli so teams are hesitant to switch it) sets a screen for Simmons as he seals his man for deep post positioning.
You’ll notice two things about that particular example. One, TJ McConnell, a non-shooter, was setting the screen there. Second, Bam Adebayo was playing up pretty close to Amir Johnson, another non-shooter, as he made that entry pass. Adebayo wasn’t technically wrong there, but that’s not going to be the most effective way to defend that action. He’s going to have to drop to make it a tougher pass, and at least give Simmons’ defender a chance to front if Miami goes that route.
Defending the shooters (perimeter: JJ Redick/Marco Belinelli/Robert Covington)
The Sixers run motion-heavy action for Redick and Belinelli. Traditional Floppy sets spring them open because they move so well without the ball. Philly also likes to run pindowns into dribble hand-offs for either guy to force the defense to bend.
Miami’s defenders will need to keep their heads on a swivel at all time. Even when action isn’t being ran for those two, they can still get free on the weakside. Peep this tremendous hammer screen to free Redick here:
In general, Miami will need to fight over any screen or dribble-handoff featuring Redick or Belinelli. Switch during Floppy sets if at all possible. If a non-shooter or big (or both) is executing a handoff, the handoff defender can hedge out to take away a pull-up jumper if the guard falls behind.
Note: Redick is a solid passer — he can burn you in 2-on-1 situations — but you can live with Redick The Passer rather than Redick The Shooter. Belinelli, on the other hand, is craftier off the bounce, but isn’t nearly the passer. There’s room to force some turnovers.
Robert Covington is more of a traditional spacer. He’s not good coming off screens (13th percentile); he’s going to roam around the perimeter as other guards penetrate. He’s a catch-and-shoot specialist (69th percentile on spot-ups) with elite spacial awareness. He will take contested shots; closing out without fouling will be key.
Defending the shooters (bigs: Dario Saric/Ersan Ilyasova)
Like Covington, Saric and Ilyasova are more “spacers” than “movers.” You won’t see much action ran for these two outside of the occasional pick-and-pop. They will be involved in dribble-handoffs, though. They’ll pop out if the defense drops to contain after a handoff.
You can’t really switch this unless there’s “big”-to-big action (think a Simmons-Saric pick-and-roll. Your best bet is to guard any two-man action featuring them 2-on-2, funnel the guard into help if possible, and try to remain attached to the big.
X-Factor: Markelle Fultz
The Heat didn’t see Fultz this year, but he’s someone they’re going to have to contain. He’s averaged 7.1 points and 3.8 dimes in a little over 18 minutes. He’s a dynamic guard that can get into the paint and make things happen at the rim, or find open guys around the floor.
At this point, there’s no reason to trust his jumper. Defend him mostly like you would Simmons — play with a gap and dip under any pick-and-roll involving him. He is getting more comfortable in that 14-18 foot range with his pull-up jumper. You may want to meet him around the elbow so he can’t walk into those. Otherwise, keep things simple and don’t allow him to force rotations with the drive.