The Sixers flew North of the border with a simple goal in mind: steal a win and return to Philadelphia with home-court advantage. After last night’s 94-89 win in Game 2 they did just that, and they’re bringing some momentum with them. If the loss in Game 1 was perceived as the beginning of the end for the Sixers, then last night’s win should be viewed as a potential catalyst (or blueprint) for a run to The Finals.
While Finals-talk is obviously impulsive after winning just one game in the series, we need to acknowledge the developments that we witnessed in Game 2, and what they mean for the Sixers moving forward.
Swapping the defensive assignments of Embiid and Harris
I’ve given Brett Brown more than his fair share of criticism throughout the past two seasons, and while a lot of that criticism was/is warranted, it’s only fair that I acknowledge the adjustments he made that bred the Sixers stellar defensive performance last night.
Heading into this series we knew that Marc Gasol would be a slight matchup problem for Embiid in a similar fashion to how Al Horford has been a problem in the past with the Celtics. Gasol has enough size and savvy to bang with Embiid in the low-post, while also possessing the three-point range to pull him away from the rim on defense. A big part of the Raptors game plan for this series has been to keep Gasol near the top of key in pick and pops or as a screener for players running off-ball—the logic being that if Gasol spends most of the offensive possession above the foul line, then he’s mitigating Embiid’s ability to protect the rim.
What makes this such an effective strategy is that it doesn’t require Gasol or anyone to “outplay” Embiid whatsoever, it’s merely rooted in forcing Embiid into defensive positions where he’s less valuable to his team. This has always worked well for Boston with Horford, and in Game 1 it proved successful for the Raptors and Gasol.
Brett responded in Game 2 by mixing up his looks on Gasol by putting Tobias Harris on him, and having Embiid defend Siakam. On the surface this isn’t an obvious fix; if Gasol’s three point shooting is what makes him an issue, and if Siakam is a slightly better shooter than Gasol, wouldn’t he be more effective at pulling Embiid away from the paint? Not necessarily.
While Siakam shoots a higher percentage from three, three-quarters (73%) of his three-point attempts in the playoffs come from the corner, where it’s significantly easier for someone like Embiid to shade toward the rim while also being able to recover to his man. The majority of Gasol’s looks, on the other hand, (83%) have come from the top of the arc where you can’t possibly defend the rim and get out on shooters. This is a product of Toronto’s offense. Gasol is the guy they use to set the majority of their ball screens, so he’s naturally at the top of the key as it is. Siakam’s role is closer to that of a true wing or power forward, who’s either spotting up ready to shoot or cut off penetration, or lurking along the baseline.
Essentially, the decision of which opposing player to have Embiid defend has nothing to do with that player’s skillset or talent, but everything to do with how their role within the offense forces Embiid to defend. Despite Gasol being the center, and the more logical matchup, its easier for Embiid to defend Siakam because it allows him to more easily assume his role as paint protector. Instead of dancing around at the top of the key as Gasol sets screens for Lowry and Kawhi, we see at the end of Game 2 that Embiid is able to settle in on the block where he can comfortably read the floor and protect the paint.
Brett Brown is essentially daring Toronto to beat them with Gasol against Tobias Harris, and from what we saw in Game 2 they’re unwilling and unable to do so. In hindsight this move is almost too obvious. Not only does taking Embiid off of that matchup eliminate some of the inherent value of having Gasol stretch the floor, but it also puts Joel Embiid—an All-NBA defender—on a player in Pascal Siakam who has been the only consistent weapon on Toronto outside of Kawhi Leonard.
This was a classic ‘two birds, one stone’ adjustment that should be credited to Brown. Siakam absolutely torched Harris in Game 1, and the Raptors ran a great deal of their offense through him as a result of this (29 pts 12/15 FG, 3/4 3PA). While Gasol should still be able to take advantage of Harris here and there, he’s far too old and plodding to run an offense through for more than a few possessions.
While this is an adjustment that has little relevance outside of this series, it’s encouraging to see Brett Brown be able to perceive a problem, diagnose the issue, and make a change. The NBA Playoffs are all about adjustments, and BB is starting to prove that he has a few tricks up his sleeve.
Simmons on Kawhi
I don’t think this move should’ve been that much of a surprise to anyone. Simmons was on Kawhi more often than not in Game 1, and he held up pretty decent, so I’m not sure about all the hype around this “adjustment” by Brett, but regardless, Simmons needs to be credited for doing about as good as you can on Kawhi considering he’s far from an ideal option.
Ben’s combination of size, length, athleticism, and improving lateral quickness has always meant that his defensive potential is sky high, but I’m not sure how many people expected these sorts of efforts this early in his career. You could argue that Ben is already an above average defender at all five positions (yes, center included). And the intensity that he played with against one of the league’s top-five scorers last night offers a glimpse into what we could be seeing on a nightly basis very soon.
Kawhi is always going to get his, and Simmons is still young as a defender, so to see Leonard still be able to put up 35 isn’t necessarily discouraging. In Game 2 Kawhi posted 21 pts on 8/16 FG and 0/6 3PA on the 50 possessions in which he was guarded by Simmons, and 14 pts on 5/8 FG and 3/4 3PA against everyone else. The key takeaway for me is that Kawhi was never able to spark the runs that he did in Game 1, and he didn’t have as much success getting his teammates involved last night.
The blueprint for beating Toronto isn’t predicated on shutting down Kawhi, it’s focused on preventing him from turning into the scorer-facilitator (mini-Lebron) that he can become when you allow him to cleanly get to his spots. Leonard is not elite at getting his team involved, but he’s no slouch either. If you can reduce him to being a scorer without letting the offense around him get in rhythm then you’ve won the battle, and that’s what Ben was able to do last night.
Playoff Jimmy has arrived
Back in October when the Sixers traded for Butler, my memory raced back to his playoff appearances with Chicago. He was ferocious defensively, aggressive offensively, and at times he carried those Bulls teams. Yesterday was his sixth career 30-point playoff performance in his 50thcareer playoff game (47starts).
Up until last night, and aside from Game 1 in the Brooklyn series, that Jimmy was absent from this year’s playoffs—at least on the offensive end. Part of that reservation on offense is understandable, he has offensive firepower around him like never before in Embiid, Simmons, Harris, and Redick; he’s been asked to carry the load on defense against the opposing teams top scorer (except for this series); and he’s recently had to take over the point guard role for the second unit, which calls for him to be aggressive at getting his teammates looks as opposed to getting looks for himself—a role he’s excelled in.
It’s that latter point that I think serves as evidence that his breakout offensive performance in Game 2 was inevitable. All throughout the playoffs Butler was able to penetrate into the lane, and far too often it resulted in him passing the ball to either a). a player on the wing not named JJ, or b). a big under the basket not named Joel. While I’m all for getting teammates involved, when Butler gets into the lane or near the basket he likely has a better look than whatever shot he’s passing off to. Obviously I don’t fault Butler here, I just think it took him a few games to find the happy medium between wanting to be efficient, and also wanting to be aggressive to his shots.
Playoff-Jimmy couldn’t have come at a better time, and he’s likely going to need to string together a few of these performances if the Sixers want to win this series. Marc Gasol has done an excellent job slowing down an already dinged-up Embiid, Simmons is going to be spending the majority of his energy guarding Kawhi, Harris can’t create for himself quite like Butler, and our days of living and dying by the JJ-three-ball need to be behind us. That leaves Butler as the man best-positioned to carry the Sixers offense in this series, and possibly beyond.
Make no mistake about it, Butler has helped the Sixers through these playoffs in just about every way imaginable. He’s been gritty on defense, crashed the glass, outhustled every other Sixer for 50/50 balls, filled in as backup point guard, been a leader in the locker room, amongst a slew of other contributions that don’t show up in the box score. But if the Sixers want to win this series, and are serious about reaching the Finals, then Butler is going to need to be ‘that guy’ on offense that we saw last night, and that we’ve seen him be in the past.