How the Sixers created advantages to beat the Denver Nuggets
Tuesday's game between the Denver Nuggets and Sixers in Philadelphia was billed as a matchup between the reigning MVP and the runner-up.
The real duel took place on the sidelines.
Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic barely went directly at each other. Philadelphia was exactly neutral with Embiid on the floor; Denver was plus-1 with Jokic on the court. Embiid played 32 more seconds than Jokic did in the affair.
Yet, the Sixers eked out a five-point victory, earning a resume-building win and a head-to-head advantage for Embiid should he qualify for MVP consideration later this season.
While Embiid did the heavy-lifting throughout the affair, including a brilliant takeover in the fourth quarter to clinch the win, his teammates put him in a position to have the spotlight with the game on the line.
He can thank Nick Nurse for the concepts they executed, both with and without the big fella on the court.
Under Nurse's tactical supervision, the Sixers have become quite adept at identifying subtle ways to create advantages. The creativity gives Embiid clarity that he didn't have just seconds beforehand:
Maxey knows that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is not going to violate the cardinal rule of help defense and shade towards Embiid from the strong-side corner. But, he knows he can help manufacture a double-team. So, he screens for the big man, causing the duo to effectively switch places on the court.
Maxey and Embiid are an ideal duo because there's enough positional difference between them that most defenses aren't going to switch on their screens (unlike, say, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal or Trae Young and Dejounte Murray, who are all guards). So, the initial action that causes them to switch spots on the court does not create the advantage, but it puts the ball in a location at which Denver can send a hard double-team much easier.
Caldwell-Pope leaves Maxey to be the second body on Embiid. Michael Porter Jr. rotates up to account for Maxey one pass away. Tobias Harris cuts through the lane at a 120-degree angle to make Aaron Gordon guard him. Kelly Oubre Jr. cuts directly to the basket to force Jamal Murray into a low-man rotation.
That all leaves Nico Batum unaccounted for in the weak-side corner, giving Philadelphia an advantage on the second side of the floor.
The Sixers have cobbled together some degree of talent on their bench in every year of the Embiid era. But, they'd never had a coach who provided infrastructure and clear strategy for those units sans Embiid until Nurse signed on.
Being only neutral with Embiid on the court would've been a death sentence against elite teams in previous years. But, it's been a far different story this year. They're outscoring opponents by 3.42 points per 100 possessions in the 919 minutes Embiid has been off the court this season, per PBP Stats. That is far and away the best such net rating of the Embiid era.
In Tuesday's win over the Nuggets, Philadelphia was plus-5 in the 9:27 Paul Reed logged, which is to say they won the minutes that Embiid was resting.
They did it by creating mismatches and picking at them over and over again:
Philadelphia made it clear that they wanted Harris bullying either Reggie Jackson or Christian Braun in those minutes that Embiid (and, by nature of stars matching minutes, Jokic) was on the bench. Denver tried to hide Jackson on Patrick Beverley. As Shannon Sharpe would say, that ain't no problem.
The Sixers set up in Horns. But, rather than having a guard trigger the play like you traditionally would, they move Beverley to the elbow and let Harris initiate. The entry goes to Reed, and Beverley sets a back screen on Braun to bait the switch, giving Harris a post-up in the paint against Jackson. Time to go to work.
(Also, golf clap for Marcus Morris Sr., who is totally locked in on the play and wise enough to burn cut to the other side of the floor when Harris catches the ball so that Murray cannot double him on his blind side. Really good timing and awareness.)
Creating advantages doesn't have to be about getting the heaviest-footed defender on the quickest isolation scorer or the smallest guard on the bulkiest post-up scorer. It can be about creating favorable numbers or a lane to the basket:
Philadelphia starts this sideline out-of-bounds (SLOB) play with Pistol action; Reed lifts to the perimeter to catch the inbound pass and immediately pitches back to Maxey as he storms towards the left side of the floor. Reed then flips and screens the ball to get Maxey coming back to his right, which is his preferred hand for getting downhill.
But, this isn't a basic pick-and-roll. Beverley sets a back screen on DeAndre Jordan so that Reed can dive into the middle of the paint with a guard - Murray or Braun - on his back. Morris is in the strong-side corner, keeping Porter Jr. out of the action and turning the possession into a game of four-on-four.
Maxey has a few options out of this action. He can go early, threading the needle to Reed, who ideally draws both Murray and Braun before making a pass to Harris out of the short roll. He can attack the pocket between Murray and Jordan, pulling up for a jumper or rifling a cross-court pass to Harris for a good look at a three. Or, he can put pressure on the rim and see how Denver responds.
Murray tags Reed on the roll, forfeiting a driving lane to Maxey. The Nuggets' defense deteriorates from there. Denver's bad floor balance effectively reduces the play to a three-on-two. Braun and Murray don't communicate their rotations, and both end up on Reed. Murray is closest to the ball and, thus, has to step up. But, it's too late. The Sixers already have the advantage.
"If you want to be the best, you got to win - no matter what's around and no matter who's around. You got to find a way to win. So, that's my goal," Embiid said after dropping 41 points and 10 assists in the victory.
"I said that at the beginning of the season. Y'all keep talking about Boston and Milwaukee. That's fine, they might be better than us. They might be more talented than us. But, I still believe we got a chance."
With the guy wearing no. 21 on the court and the guy wearing a pinky ring on the sideline, the Sixers have more than a chance. They're proving that with each top-of-resume win.