No eagle sound effects in games, but Sixers know what matters to Nurse originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
Those noises you’d have heard if you waited outside of a Sixers practice this preseason weren’t random.
There’s the “Rocky” theme song as a session concludes, a self-explanatory Philadelphia flourish. There’s the jackpot machine sound when a player makes a slot cut. And there’s that piercing screech.
“Getting back on defense, we make sure that we’re building a wall, showing our hands. We call ‘em ‘eagles,’” Paul Reed said Wednesday, illustrating the outstretched wings image (and corresponding noise).
Transition defense is one of several core areas where Nurse has aimed to drill home the message that the Sixers must be different. Amid day-by-day uncertainty with star guard James Harden’s status, much of Nurse’s focus has been on effort and attention to details.
“There’s a handful of things that we talked about ... on Day 1 in our meeting. We don’t offensive rebound very well nor do we get back very well. That can’t be,” Nurse said with a laugh before the Sixers’ Oct. 16 preseason win over the Nets. “Usually, I like to do both really well.
“There was a long time where people said, ‘At least, if you’re not going to offensive rebound, get back.’ So first of all, addressing it. A lot of it starts with a plan and some organization and some drill work. And then it shifts really quickly to effort, right? Sprint back. The communication becomes the technical side of it that you’ve got to practice, and we’ve worked at it pretty hard.”
After dropping to 1-4 last season with an embarrassingly poor and slow outing against Nurse’s Raptors, the Sixers’ transition defense was by far the NBA’s worst; opponents were adding an outlandish 9.3 points per 100 possessions through transition play, according to Cleaning the Glass. The Sixers did manage to somewhat right the ship, finishing 15th in that category for the remainder of the season.
“Sprinting back and talking,” said Danny Green, a member of the 2018-19 Toronto team that won a championship in Nurse’s first season as an NBA head coach. “Communication is a big key in everything we do defensively, especially in transition.
“Finding bodies, matching up to bodies, cracking and pursuing, making sure we get rebounds. But also making sure we’re putting pressure on the defense by crashing the o-boards a little bit so we give ourselves another chance to get an opportunity at the rim where we can score, which will give our defense a chance to set up. But most importantly, it’s just sprinting, getting back and talking.”
Nurse has stressed that physicality is an essential part of almost all the Sixers do.
“Nick definitely emphasized just causing disruption out there, no matter what it is,” De’Anthony Melton said following the preseason game in Brooklyn. “Bodies on bodies, flesh on flesh.
“We had a video before the season started just (about) being physical, showing clips from last year. I think that’s an emphasis this year, our physicality. And I think the physicality will wear down on teams for us.”
Patrick Beverley identified that as a unifying, clarifying force for the Sixers.
“I think we’re a closer-knit group than a lot of people know we are,” Beverley said Monday. “We have a bunch of new faces but also, collectively, there’s a bunch of guys who’ve been here before. We really get along a lot. We’re able to police ourselves, coach ourselves. And I’d say on the basketball court, just physicality and aggressiveness.
“Obviously you go through the preseason and we fouled a ton, but I’ve been on teams where we led the league in fouls and we led the league in forcing turnovers, too. It plays both ways. So if there’s one thing about (team) identity, it’d be physicality.”
To Beverley’s point: The Sixers ranked 25th among NBA teams in preseason fouls committed per game and first in defensive turnover percentage outside of garbage time.
Nurse isn't asking for constant gambles that leave the Sixers’ defense always scrambling out of odd-man situations. But physical, aggressive basketball will inevitably mean that players like Melton and Reed hear some whistles. The Sixers’ coaches won’t discourage that.
“It’s been an adjustment for sure,” Reed said last Thursday. “I feel like last season, setting screens, they didn’t even require us to hit and hold as much as we do now. This year they want us to hit more on the screens. Last year it was kind of like, ‘Just get the lower half and get up out of there quick.’ Now it’s like, ‘Make sure you hit him good and then roll.’ So that’s my adjustment, personally.
“And on the rebounding aspect of it, ‘crack and pursue’ is one thing the coaches have been preaching. It gets the guards engaged and helping the bigs out when we’re boxing out. Hopefully, that helps us get more rebounds.”
Nurse has been working on plenty of other schematic changes, too. It’s all tended to stem from ways he believes the Sixers can better attack opponents.
He’s hoping to see more unpredictability on offense around reigning MVP Joel Embiid; more players feeling free to bring the ball up the floor, to shoot open jumpers, to cut; more shots for 22-year-old guard Tyrese Maxey — a minimum of 20 field-goal attempts per game, Nurse has emphasized.
The Sixers’ new coach also doesn't want the big picture to be very complicated for a Harden-less, season-opening road trip with games Thursday night against the Bucks and Saturday against the Raptors.
“Well, hopefully we’re going to play really hard, right? We’re going to play really hard and with the spirit that we’ve shown in practice and the togetherness that we’ve shown,” Nurse said Wednesday. “That’s kind of my job. If I can leave the game understanding that we fought, understood the game plan that we were trying to execute and got some of it done … I always say, ‘If we can get this stuff done, we have a really good chance.’ And then just battle all the way. That’s it.
“A lot of guys have been touching the basketball and doing a lot of different things. … So we’re going to try to figure out who those people are going to be and what the rotations look like. But mainly, we just need to go out there and compete at a super high level.”
No eagles will screech in Milwaukee, but the Sixers know exactly what will matter to Nurse and his staff.
“At the end of the game tomorrow, they’re going to have a list of everything we did as far as ball pressure, crack and pursue, eagles,” Reed said. “If we’re all in the green, then I’m pretty sure we’ll end up with the win.”