You need veterans to win in the playoffs. It’s an age-old saying and there’s plenty of truth to it. You need a mix of experienced level heads, even on a young Philadelphia 76ers team that has so much talent and mature cockiness that they overcame their first trip to the playoff stage in five games.
The Sixers couldn’t have asked for a much better veteran big to bring off their bench than Ersan Ilyasova. And he’s not just an older voice in the locker room — he’s in the paint working for rebounds, burying 3s, taking charges, and stepping up as an integral part of some of the Sixers’ most effective lineups and vastly improved bench.
For the first time in Game 5, a 104-91 closeout win over the Miami Heat, the Sixers weren’t trailing at the end of the first half. They had some slow starts thanks to cool shooting and the fierce efforts of the Heat’s versatile defense, but smart lineup adjustments from Brett Brown and the players themselves led to commanding play in second halves. As Caleb Turrentine pointed out here, the Sixers had a 28.2 net rating in second halves against the Heat.
In fact, third quarter dominance in particular isn’t anything new. From the start of February until the end of the regular season (34 games), the Sixers recorded a league-best 20.6 net rating in third quarters.
One specific lineup has been at the heart of many of these runs, especially through the 16-game win streak and the playoffs. Throw Ben Simmons’ combination of bulldozing drives and jaw-dropping playmaking with four shooters, featuring Ilyasova at center, and the results can be devastating. Pressure guys too closely at the perimeter, and Simmons has more room to fly to the rim. Double Simmons in the post or help too much on his drives, and he’ll make the right pass to the open man every time.
In Game 1, the Sixers started the series with a blowout win thanks to a third quarter that completely turned the tide. They went into the half down 60-56 before Brett Brown made a lineup change, unleashing Simmons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Ilyasova to lift up the team’s offense, abuse Hassan Whiteside, and win the quarter 34-18.
In Game 5, it was time to finish the series in similar fashion. The Sixers started the third quarter tied 46-46 and went on to win the period 34-20, first going to work with the starting five before Ilyasova entered around the six-minute mark to help continue the onslaught.
Like the team’s shooting as a whole through the series, Ilyasova had some ups and downs, with two games (3 and 5) where he only had five field goal attempts and scored fewer than 10 points. Nevertheless, he still averaged 10.8 points and 9.2 rebounds in just 27 minutes per game, shooting 51.1 percent from the floor and a passable 35.3 percent from 3 after a few cold games.
With sets like this, it’s obvious how Ilyasova helps. Whiteside had a rough series, with Ilyasova showing up his lack of movement at the perimeter here by using the flare screen from Saric to ditch his defender, Josh Richardson, and find space at the top of the arc. With Whiteside worried about a potential threat from Saric as well, he doesn’t contest at all and Ilyasova hits the 3:
Ilyasova’s shooting ability is only made better by how he moves off the ball. The clip above shows a bit of his mobility as he comfortably nips past the screen, gathers his shot on the move and fires — he isn’t just a lumbering, stand-still shooter. He can find space off the ball from deep or on cuts. As Philly went on to bury 18 3s in Game 3, you can see how effectively Ilyasova uses a pin-down screen from Simmons to find space, set his feet and shoulders, and calmly bury a triple on the turn:
Then, there are times like this in Game 5 where the simple threat of Ilyasova (and even his solid passing) help make things click:
Ilyasova is the team’s best 3-point shooting option at center, which helps ensure Kelly Olynyk is glued to him at the arc to clear out space inside. The Sixers could have run a simple Spain pick-and-roll here, with Ilyasova going to the rim and Redick popping to the top of the arc (as he does in the play above). Seeing as Simmons is unlike any point guard in the world, though, an aerial 6’10” nightmare, the Sixers can switch things up — they give Ilyasova the ball, use Redick’s screen to cut off Simmons’ man, Richardson, and create an open lane for a Simmons alley-oop dunk.
While plenty of things come into play here to make it work so effortlessly, the threat of Ilyasova from 3 provides more space and offensive flexibility overall. Swap him for Amir Johnson, and Olynyk is just going to sit back in the paint and mess things up. Having this option at center and to elevate the bench in general makes a big difference.
Something else Ilyasova probably doesn’t get enough credit for is his offensive rebounding. He opened the series with 17 points and 15 rebounds, following up with 14 and 11 in Game 2. Grabbing nine offensive boards over the first two games is pretty impressive, and the Heat had no answer for him in stretches when he could beat out Olynyk or tip the ball over the likes of Justise Winslow or Dwyane Wade:
The Sixers wouldn’t be first in offensive rebound percentage for the playoffs so far without him. He couldn’t make better use of his persistence, length and timing in instances like this.
Put everything together, and Philly’s two most effective lineups (with at least 10 minutes played) in the playoffs so far feature Ilyasova at center — Simmons-Redick-Belinelli-Saric-Ilyasova leads the way with a 135.8 offensive rating and 17.9 net rating. While we can only look at a tiny sample size here, these numbers still show what groups the team has used to go on key runs.
Ilyasova’s well-rounded skill set has made him work so seamlessly with the Sixers. He has the shooting to take slower centers out of their comfort zone at the perimeter (or help play a guy like Whiteside off the floor) and the physical persistence to get the best of smaller bigs on the offensive glass.
It’s the kind of balanced offensive package that’s helped round out the Sixers’ second unit so neatly alongside Marco Belinelli, unlocking lineups that Brett Brown wisely deployed against Miami. And again, the sample size is only small, but Philly having the best bench net rating (9.7) in the playoffs so far reinforces the strength of their additions.
In round 2, against some of Boston’s slower bigs like Aron Baynes and Greg Monroe, or Milwaukee’s overly aggressive, confused defense, you can expect to see the Simmons-plus-four-shooters lineups go to work again. And Ilyasova will be right in the middle of it.
All statistics courtesy of and NBA.com.