After a playoff career-high 36 points in Game 1, Jimmy Butler didn't need to be a scorer in Game 2 against the Brooklyn Nets. The Philadelphia 76ers' offensive barrage was covered. Ben Simmons bounced back in explosive fashion at both ends of the floor with 18 points, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists, while Joel Embiid poured in 23 points in just 21 minutes. Butler, with his quiet seven-point outing, was able to sit back as his teammates led the blowout.
But even with the big drop in scoring, Game 2 was a positive one for Butler. Primarily because of the much-needed rotation adjustment made by Brett Brown: drop T.J. McConnell for Point Butler.
After yet another performance in Game 1 where all of McConnell’s flaws were on display — the limited defense, the complete lack of gravity as a shooter, the damaging tendency to dribble out of wide-open 3-pointers — I thought Brown should drop McConnell from the rotation. With the opportunity to let Butler soak up backup point guard minutes and let Zhaire Smith enter the rotation for additional shooting guard depth, there was a route to help some of the team’s weaknesses with simple adjustments.
Plays like this (as well as his bad defense) are why the Sixers need to cut out McConnell's minutes, especially when Ennis is back.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) April 15, 2019
He's left totally unguarded which clogs the lane, then on top of that he passes up a wide-open 3 and dribbles away a possession pic.twitter.com/qEHLU9B8rK
And — to my surprise — after loyally playing McConnell for so long, Brown didn’t hesitate to make a change. McConnell’s 10 minutes only came in garbage time, James Ennis returned to fill out the wing rotation, and Butler was able to take the reins with some run as lead backup guard. He finished with seven assists to zero turnovers, providing what the Sixers needed from him in that role. He's a good enough passer and ball handler to lead stretches without Simmons.
Even though Butler doesn’t command a ton of gravity as a 3-point shooter, and he attempted a mere 2.7 triples per game with Philly in the regular season, it makes an instantaneous difference having someone that defenses have to respect at any level. Leave Butler alone, or let him get ahead of you off a screen, and he can spot-up or pull-up in ways that McConnell never can.
That reality pulls defenders from the basket. The Nets have been top-locking (where off-ball defenders place themselves between the off-ball player and the passes and screens they try to use) the Sixers’ best shooters, JJ Redick and Tobias Harris. When that’s the case, it creates chances for shooters to leave screens and cut backdoor.
Even though Caris LeVert just falls asleep here and lets Harris slip by him, it’s much easier for a ball handler to whip these passes inside when his own defender isn’t dropping back to clog the lane and help on those passing lanes. Along with all the other ways McConnell’s zero-gravity presence hurts the Sixers, it also limits what he can do with the ball. With a shifty change of direction, Butler creates a passing lane around Treveon Graham and fires a pass through the defense to Harris for the layup:
The Nets have often used spurts of zone defense to throw opponents off this season. After having some struggles against it in Game 1, the Sixers were far more prepared to get the looks they wanted in Game 2.
Point Butler was a part of that adjustment. On this play against the Nets’ 2-3 zone, the Sixers start with three shooters loaded up on the weakside with James Ennis, Mike Scott, and Harris. Graham is useless for anything in the strongside corner except contesting a potential layup from Butler. So, as Butler drives and Spencer Dinwiddie backtracks, leaving four defenders in the paint and LeVert stranded between Scott and Harris, it's easy to make the extra pass to find Scott for 3:
Butler ranked in at least the 76th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball handler in each of the last three seasons before coming to Philly, using his creativity off the bounce as a scorer or playmaker to pick apart opponents. Taking over McConnell's role in Game 2 has allowed him to up his usage and demonstrate this against the Nets. He's now operated as a pick-and-roll ball handler in 45.2 percent of his possessions for the series (25.2 in the regular season), producing 1.11 points per possession (which places him in the 83rd percentile).
The next play highlights how easily Butler can beat the Nets’ zone as a scorer. Here, he uses a high pick-and-roll with Boban Marjanovic to take Dinwiddie out of the play. With Rondae Hollis-Jefferson dropping back and LeVert holding the zone on the weakside, Butler has a ton of space for a jumper:
With Butler's ability to penetrate and break down defenses in a variety of ways, he's well built to lead counters against the Nets’ zone defense. If a zone is too slow or one player slips out of position, it can be broken. Butler can burst to the rim in isolation or attack off ball screens to exploit this.
If Brown staggers Butler and Harris together a little as well, this can give Harris a few more ball handling opportunities without Simmons around. Such a change would help Harris keep finding his rhythm after a rough Game 1 (Harris bounced back nicely after a cold start in Game 2 with 19 points and a pair of 3-pointers).
Defensively, shifting to Butler at backup point takes away McConnell as a mismatch waiting to happen. The Sixers can trot out lineups with Ennis as the smallest player at 6-foot-7. Butler isn’t best chasing around point guards on defense, but it’s obvious how much a player with his versatility can help in McConnell’s place. Butler’s playoff switch has looked real so far, too.
With the super small sample size we have so far, it’s (unsurprisingly) the Sixers’ starting five that has led the way against the Nets. Through two games, the starters have a plus-72 net rating in 19 minutes (a 150 offensive rating and 78 defensive rating). It’s an absurdly unsustainable number, but something impressive should be expected after the plus-17.6 net rating and 8-2 record that the starting five earned when on the floor together during the regular season.
As rotations shorten in the playoffs, the bench doesn’t have to do as much. And if one two-way liability in McConnell can be minimized, or completely removed from the rotation, then that’s another way for the second unit to improve behind Butler’s leadership at point. Hopefully for the Sixers and their lacking depth, Game 2 was the start of a permanent change in the right direction for Brett Brown, not just an experiment.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.