Undoubtedly, Monday night’s season-prolonging victory will forever be known in Sixers lore as the T.J. McConnell game. With McConnell as its spirit animal, Game 4 became a grind-it-out, defensive affair, with the Sixers shooting just 40.4% as a team and only surpassing 100 points thanks to late-game fouling by the Celtics in an effort to extend the contest.
Even his Gritness needed some help on the evening though, and he received it from his morning coffee partner, Dario Saric. That duo comprised the only two Sixers to surpass even that low bar of 40% shooting on the evening, as Saric scored a game-high 25 points by shooting 9-17 from the field, 1-3 from three, and 6-6 from the charity stripe. It was a Trust the Friendship performance at its finest.
Defensively, Saric did make two nice plays in blocking a Marcus Smart drive when the Boston guard tried to break him down in isolation, and poking away the ball from Al Horford as the All-Star big man attempted to back him down in the post. Still, no one will be confusing Dario as a stopper any time soon, and the Sixers were much better defensively when Ilyasova was in the game (96.8 defensive rating for Ilyasova vs. 106.8 for Saric).
On the offensive end, however, Saric picked an opportune time to break out of a recent slump in a big way. The Homie had shot less than 50% from the field and scored 14 or fewer points in the first three games of the series. Brett Brown had opted to run with Ersan Ilyasova over Saric for much of the crunch time minutes in Game 3. All series long, the Celtics would shut down off-ball action for J.J. Redick or Marco Belinelli, no Sixer could create off the dribble, and offensive possessions reverted to inefficient Joel Embiid post-up attempts. Dario’s disappearance as a secondary option exacerbated those issues, but his Game 4 performance put an end to it.
Saric did the bulk of his damage against Marcus Morris, shooting 5-6 from the field for 12 points on possessions Morris was designated as his primary defender. The Saric-Morris matchup is one the Sixers should be able to exploit. Unlike many of Boston’s long, switchy, perimeter defenders, the Celtics forward is slow enough that Saric can take him off the dribble. Early in the fourth quarter, Saric uses the hint of an on-ball screen from Embiid to drive for an and-one.
Then, even in instances where Saric doesn’t have Morris cleanly beat off the dribble, he still has an inch on him and can finish over him in the paint, as he did earlier in the game for yet another and-one opportunity.
Finally, if Boston is going to simply switch everything, the Sixers have to make them pay by attacking favorable matchups. Marcus Smart is as stout a defender as they come, but he is a half foot shorter than Saric, and Dario needs to be able to utilize his massive height advantage for easy points down low. He was able to do that last night in the second quarter, backing Smart down for a short hook shot in the lane.
I love T.J. as much as anyone, but while extended minutes for him should help the Sixers defensively, it’s not reasonable to expect him to continue leading a sudden turnaround for the team on the offensive end. Against a Boston team that rated first in the league defensively this season, the Sixers are going to need to grind things out and win battles in the margins. That could mean attacking Marcus Morris, who is often the weakest defender on the court for Boston. Or it could mean sensing when there’s a mismatch with a smaller defender on somebody like Saric and working it down low. Learning how to identify those situations in real time and have the poise to execute within them are some of those “playoff experience” intangibles people covet for the Sixers.
People talk about these playoffs as a learning experience for Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, but though he’s been playing professionally for years, Dario Saric is still just 24 years old and this is also his first taste of the NBA playoffs. Saric has come up big on the global stage before, but this is a different sort of atmosphere. Even if the Sixers don’t go on to make history in the next week (and hey, one down, three to go), it’s terrific that both Saric and his teammates are creating some positive foundational blocks to build upon moving forward.
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com