Sixers' Doc Rivers: Transition defense has been 'very disappointing'

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Noah Levick
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Rivers more concerned with a season-long issue than stressful finish originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

It was apparent to anyone who watched that the Nets were not particularly concerned with whether they won Wednesday night’s game in Philadelphia.

Kevin Durant (left hamstring injury management), James Harden (right hamstring strain) and Blake Griffin (left knee injury management) were among the seven Brooklyn players who sat out. Even when a youthful group trimmed down the Sixers’ lead and made head coach Doc Rivers re-insert his stars, Kyrie Irving stayed on the bench. 

The Sixers, who improved to 50-7 at Wells Fargo Center over the last two seasons with a 123-117 victory, were glad to take the win and sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference. Rivers didn’t view the unnecessary stress of the final minutes as indicative of anything deeply troubling. 

“It happens,” he said. “It’s a long season. Again, I don’t overdo this kind of stuff. We knew who was on the floor, too, just like we knew who was off, if you know what I mean. It was a letdown. We kind of let off. It happens, but we won the game. I’m glad we didn’t blow the game. I’ve been in games like this where you end up losing them, and that hurts. 

“But either way, at the end of the day, we got up 18 or 20. I thought we should’ve been up way more all game. I thought our transition D, that was the only bad part of the game. I don’t overdo the end of games when the hustle guys come in and the other guys let up. What I didn’t like through the game — even though we had a lead — I thought transition D-wise, we were not very good, and that’s an area of concern.”

Brooklyn scored 18 fast-break points Wednesday. The Sixers this season are 29th in opponents’ fast-break points (15.3), sandwiched between the 14-win Rockets and 14-win Timberwolves. 

Rivers' team has been very difficult to score against once its defense is set. The Sixers’ 92.4 points allowed per 100 half-court plays is tied for third in the league, per Cleaning the Glass

Even in the preseason, Rivers was dissatisfied with the Sixers’ transition defense.

“I don’t think it’s gotten much better,” he said. “It’s been very disappointing. When you look at an NBA team, especially a young team, you look at two areas: turnovers and transition D. And we’re bad at both. And so that’s two areas of concern for us where we have to get better.

“What do we rank, second or third in defense? … I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone second or third in defense and 29th or 30th all year in transition D. The two don’t actually go together. It’s funny, (DeAndre Jordan) even mentioned, he said, ‘Man, your guys’ half-court defense is amazing. We’ve got to score quick.’ And that’s what teams think, so we have to get better at it.”

Specifically, how can the Sixers improve? Better attention to the fundamentals is a good place to start, as well as fewer of the turnovers that tend to create easy baskets. (A positive development on that front: Ben Simmons has only two turnovers over his last three games.) Though they rank eighth in offensive rebounding percentage and have several players capable of crashing the offensive glass well, it’s still odd that the Sixers would continue to struggle so much in transition defense with 17 regular-season games left. 

“Our communication has to be a whole lot better, matching up, knowing who we’ve got,” Tobias Harris said. “And just the effort of us getting back on defense. The guys on the wings and on the perimeter, making the emphasis of when the shot goes up, sprinting back. Just that emphasis can really help us out in that area. Tonight we gave them too many free points in transition with nobody around. We’ve got to be better there.”

A poor few minutes of execution against the Nets’ feisty second-stringers isn’t worthy of serious consternation. A season-long issue, however, is fair game. 

It’s one lingering weakness for a team with many strengths that just boosted its chances to seize the No. 1 seed. 

“… It’s funny, I was telling someone before the game, we know exactly who (the Nets) are, and they know who we are,” Rivers said. “There’s no secrets. Whether they all played tonight and we won or they all didn’t play and we won, it didn’t matter. When the playoffs start, it’s a whole new beast and we’ll be ready for them, and I’m sure they’ll be ready for us.”