6-1 Sixers building a style that's fun to play, frustrating to face

6-1 Sixers building a style that's fun to play, frustrating to face originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Nick Nurse isn’t close to satisfied.

As the Sixers’ head coach has stressed over and over again, he’s learning his team, teaching new players, trying to coax better habits out of stars Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey.

However, the Sixers are still 6-1, and the work they’ve done in building a team style that’s fun to play and frustrating to face is awfully impressive.

“I think that we’ve got an interesting team,” Nurse said after Wednesday’s win over the Celtics. “We’ve got an emerging young star in Tyrese. We’ve got an unbelievable — unbelievable — player in Joel. And we’ve got a lot of athletes who are pretty talented around them that give us some depth. … I just focus on the team I’ve got, and I like this group a lot. They play hard, they’re playing together, and they’re fun to be around right now.”

While Nurse fairly criticized aspects of the Sixers’ showing against Boston — blown coverages that left Kristaps Porzingis with wide-open three-pointers, for instance — all of his effort-related praise rang true.

The Sixers powered through mistakes and were determined to contain the Celtics’ star forwards. Jaylen Brown scored only 11 points on 4-for-13 shooting. Jayson Tatum, who’d torched the Sixers for 51 points in Boston’s Round 2, Game 7 blowout playoff victory last year, tallied a mere 16.

“We did a really good job on Brown and Tatum,” Nurse said. “That’s one thing I really like about this team: We may not have one guy that’s a lockdown (defender) like, ‘This guy’s going to need to guard; we can’t switch, we can’t play schemes.’ We’ve got, like, five above-average guys with size, athletic ability and aggressiveness — guys that are out there trying really hard to guard.

“We asked them to get into ‘em and pick ‘em up. … I thought we made those guys really work, and that was one thing we wanted to do that we evidently did pretty good.”

The charge Maxey took on Brown was a shining example of the Sixers’ whatever-it-takes obstinance. Maxey is presumably not among the five above-average defenders Nurse had in mind, but he’s absolutely been dedicated to the team cause.

“Compete,” Maxey said. “That’s it. Coach Nurse and (assistant coach Bryan Gates), they have faith in us switching one through five or switching one through four whenever we need to, so we switch a lot.

“And he just says, ‘Guard your yard. You’re going to have your help behind you.’ For me, I’m a competitor. So whenever I have to switch out or whoever the matchup is, I’m going to take pride in that and try to get a stop.”

Effort has also popped for the Sixers on the offensive glass. Over their six-game winning streak, the Sixers' offensive rebounding rate of 31.6 percent is fifth in the NBA, according to Cleaning the Glass. The team's 24.8 offensive rebounding percentage was 25th in the league last season.

Nearly every player on the Sixers’ evolving second unit has contributed there. Patrick Beverley has already pulled down 10 offensive boards, which is tremendous for a 6-foot-2 35-year-old. In a steady backup center role, Paul Reed has continued to look like an elite offensive rebounder.

Nicolas Batum and Robert Covington each grabbed two offensive boards Wednesday. Covington secured his first one by crashing from the wing and wedging himself between Al Horford and Sam Hauser, then drilled a three seconds later. Even third-year guard Jaden Springer seems to soar for an eye-catching offensive rebound every time he plays.

“Guys like Pat and Cov and Paul, a couple others, they’re going in there to give you some rough, tough, hard play,” Nurse said. “That’s their role and they really excel at it.”

The “50-50 balls” have appeared slanted in the Sixers’ favor, and that’s not just good fortune.

“It’s a breath of fresh air since those guys have been here,” Beverley said of the Sixers’ James Harden trade pickups. “I expect nothing less. Just winning mentality and impact on and off the bench."

The Sixers won’t win ‘em all. Their energy will occasionally dip and opponents will expose a flaw or two. Tobias Harris won’t shoot 60 percent from the floor or 77 percent at the rim. Maxey-less lineups will drop off from their plus-22.2 net rating so far.

But, seven games in, it’s difficult to find problems with either the Sixers’ performances or their approach.

Outside of garbage time, the team sits second in offensive rating and sixth in defensive rating. The Sixers are either strong or middling in most major statistical categories besides fouling opponents a tad too much.

We’ve learned a little about the 2023-24 Sixers, and there’s a lot to like.

“I don’t see any egos on anybody,” Springer said following the team's morning shootaround. “I feel like everybody just wants to win. That’s the vibe I’m getting. On the locker room, on the court everybody just wants to win, and I feel like that’s been showing so far this season.”

Embiid was glad to expand on that point Wednesday night.

“I think it’s a lot of credit to the culture that we have,” he said. “No one has an ego on this team. … The fact that guys want to play with each other and they like being around each other, I think it helps a lot, too. Guys are unselfish; the ball is moving.

“No matter if the shots are going in or not, guys are happy and just worrying about the right things, which is to win. That’s the only thing that matters and that’s the only thing that should matter.”