NBA playoffs: Is Sixers' transition defense problem fixable?

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Is Sixers' transition defense problem fixable in playoffs? originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Sixers finished the regular season with the No. 2 defensive rating in the NBA.

Despite that fact, it would be borderline delusional to claim the team’s transition defense was not problematic at times.

The Sixers allowed 14.3 fast-break points per game. Only the cellar-dwelling Rockets conceded more.

So, what are the keys to transition defense not being a postseason issue? 

“Us doing it,” head coach Doc Rivers said Sunday with a laugh. “There’s no tricks to transition. It’s so much about habit and discipline, and we’ve had bad habits all year. We’ve gotten better as it’s gone on, but it’s such an individual-team thing, if that makes sense to you. We’ll have three guys that’ll do it and two guys that’ll break the habit, and then it kills the entire transition D. We’ll be working on that for five days, I can guarantee you that.”

One interesting note about the Sixers’ transition defense: The team gave up 122.0 points per 100 transition plays, according to Cleaning the Glass. That figure ranked seventh. 

The core concern, as Rivers touched on, is the Sixers not getting back and forcing teams to score in the half court enough. The Sixers were 23rd in the frequency of opponents’ possessions that started with a transition play (15.4 percent).

Breaking that down further, they were 27th in the percentage of opponents’ live-ball rebounds that led to transition plays (30.5 percent) and 29th in the frequency with which opposition steals led to transition plays (65.7 percent). 

All of the above suggests the Sixers’ transition defense woes have been multi-faceted, not something that can be attributed solely to costly turnovers or excessive aggression on the offensive glass. Indeed, if all five players on the floor aren’t committed and in sync, a variety of cracks are bound to show. 

Examining turnovers specifically, the Sixers coughed the ball up on 14.4 percent of their possessions, 20th in the league. They mitigated those giveaways very well, however, by creating turnovers on 15.3 percent of the opposition’s possessions. It’s one reason why the Sixers posted 15.2 fast-break points per game, which was third in the NBA. 

A good sign on the turnover front is Joel Embiid, the team’s highest-usage player and the heart of their championship hopes, turning the ball over at a career-low 12.5 percent rate this year. If he’s the hub of most offensive possessions and limits risky decisions when double teamed, then live-ball turnovers and subsequent pressure on the Sixers’ transition defense shouldn’t be an Achilles heel. 

In the half court, the Sixers’ defense featured three All-Defensive Team candidates in Ben Simmons, Embiid and Matisse Thybulle, a significantly improved defender in Tobias Harris and Danny Green, who was 13th in total steals and also blocked 56 shots. Not surprisingly, the team’s 92.2 points allowed per 100 half-court plays ranked second.

Any team the Sixers face in the playoffs will be determined to avoid going against a set defense and maximize open-floor possessions. While this topic has sometimes seemed like a head-scratcher for the Sixers, the best way to remedy the transition defense problem is indeed simply focusing on doing it. 

With higher-stakes games looming, Embiid has confidence the Sixers will elevate their defense across the board.

“I feel like we know what we’ve got to do, especially for the playoffs coming in," he said Friday. “Every play counts. As good as we were in the regular season, I think we’re going to be even better in the playoffs.

“In the regular season, it’s not the right way to think but you can kind of sometimes get away with it — not making the right rotations or not being fully committed defensively. But in the playoffs, everybody’s got to be on the same page. We have a goal and we think we can accomplish it, so everybody’s going to be ready and I think our defense is going to be even better.”