After stealing Game 2 from the Raptors, Brett Brown praised “James” Butler (not Jimmy’s full name but a nice sentiment nonetheless) as the “adult in the room” for the Sixers. While Butler was instrumental in closing out the win, Brown was selling himself a bit short: in an ugly defensive slugfest, the Sixers MVP was none other than their Head Coach. A year removed from getting out-dueled on the sidelines by Brad Stevens, it was Brown who was able to stay a step ahead of his counterpart Nick Nurse in Monday’s 94-89 win. Let’s dive into three key adjustments made by Brown and his staff, and the impact they had on the game.
Heading into Game 1, Brett Brown said that guarding Kawhi Leonard was going to be a group effort, saying that the burden of stopping the All-NBA wing would not fall squarely on the shoulders of one player. He did not lie — in his Game 1 explosion, Leonard was covered by a platoon of Tobias Harris (18.2 percent of his offensive possessions), Jimmy Butler (31.2 percent), and Ben Simmons (35.1 percent), with Simmons being the only defender able to hold Leonard to under 50 percent shooting at 4-9. Jimmy Butler has the reputation of a stout wing defender, but he doesn’t have the length or the strength to match Kawhi physically; that combined with his penchant to gamble defensively lead to Leonard racking up 16 points on 5-6 shooting with Butler on him.
The only Raptors starters who saw the same primary defender for half or more of their offensive possessions were Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam, guarded by Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris respectively. Harris lacked the length and athleticism to cover the Raptors’ Elongated Man, while Gasol’s ability to shoot the three kept Embiid from being able to fully commit to providing strong help.
In Game 2, Brown decided to put his best two defenders on the Raptors who dominated Game 1 (Leonard & Siakam), while locking the starting five into set assignments. After having the most success against Leonard in Game 1, Ben Simmons picked up Kawhi every possession they shared the court in Game 2. While Leonard still scored 21 of his 35 on Simmons with 8-16 shooting, he was forced to take difficult mid-range jumpers. Notably, Leonard who is shooting a scorching 46.5 percent of his three point attempts this postseason, is 0-9 from deep when guarded by Simmons.
After torching Philly for 29 points on 12-15 shooting in Game 1, the Sixers gave Siakam a new look as well, matching him up against his countryman, Joel Hans Embiid. When Siakam was on ball, Embiid employed the same defense he did against Giannis Antetokounmpo, happily allowing the Cameroonian forward to take mid-range and above the break pull-ups off the dribble, while trusting his 7’2’’ frame to detract any drives to the hoop. Off ball, guarding Siakam gave Embiid the freedom to float to the rim and help on drives, noting after the game that as long as he wasn’t giving Pascal open corner threes he was happy. Embiid held Siakam, typically an efficient scorer, to just 6-17 shooting, while also providing crucial off ball help at the rim.
By sticking Simmons and Embiid on Leonard and Siakam, the Sixers then matched Harris on Gasol, Redick on Danny Green, and Butler on Kyle Lowry. When Leonard would hunt switches, Philly felt comfortable trapping and rotating with Harris and Embiid and switching with Butler, who held Kawhi to just 1-4 shooting in limited possessions. When Leonard would hunt JJ Redick, the weakest link in the Sixers on ball defense, Simmons was able to jump over screens and regain his position against Leonard, sending Redick back over to Green.
Look for Toronto to counter in Game 3 with more Gasol post-ups on Harris, as well as more pick and rolls involving Siakam as the ball handler and Green as the screener, as they’ll likely try and test Embiid and his ailing knees in space.
The Philadelphia bench has been a weakness of the team throughout the season and a major talking point among fans. Although the bench has seen quite the revamp since the days of Empty Roster Spot and the game of “Who’s the Starter, Anyway?” with Markelle Fultz and JJ Redick, Philly entered this series knowing that they were undermanned when it came to reserves, especially with Mike Scott going down.
Scott is no Sixth Man of the Year candidate, but he’s a capable wing defender and Philadelphia’s best shooting option off the pine. To replace Scott in Game 1, Brown was forced to pick from a group containing mainly defensive sieves, plodding bigs, and non-shooting point guards. He ended up trying to steal minutes with Furkan Korkmaz, and could likely hear the collective groan from Philadelphia when Furkan first checked into the game Saturday night.
Rather than repeating the Korkmaz mistake or trying another option like Jonathan Simmons or rookie Zhaire Smith, Brown opted to enlist workhorses, leaning on Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler to play 44 and 43 minutes respectively, while also giving spot minutes to Jonah Bolden at power forward, minimizing his tendency to foul around the rim by pairing him with Joel Embiid.
Brown also switched his back-up center rotation, opting to go with Game 3 starter Greg Monroe over Boban Marjanovic, who was a -17 in 10 minutes Saturday night. Monroe was surprisingly effective Monday night, going 4-7 from the field in 12 minutes against his former team before going down with an ankle injury in the second half. After the injury to Monroe, Marjanovic came in and immediately began to struggle; in one minute of action Boban was a -5. In the final quarter, Brown opted to give Joel Embiid a short rest around the seven minute mark. Rather than going with Boban, he gave Amir Johnson the call and the veteran big (who was a last minute activation in case Embiid was too sick to play) answered by holding his own in a three minute stint. If Monroe can’t go Game 3, don’t be surprised if Amir gets the bulk of the minutes when Embiid rests.
Of all the things Brown draws criticism for from fans, his rotations are one of the more justifiable beefs. The lack of playing time for young players and reliance on long term Sixers like TJ McConnell can get frustrating. But last night, in the biggest game of his Sixers tenure, Brown dialed up the right rotations while being short-handed.
More Pick and Rolls
Everyone who follows the Sixers knows that Brett Brown does not like to run a lot of pick-and-rolls and everyone who follows the NBA knows that Jimmy Butler was not all too happy about the lack of pick-and-rolls early in his time with Philadelphia.
In the regular season, Philadelphia ran the second least amount of PNR in the league, with just 11.5% of their offense coming from that action. But to close the game last night, Brown put the ball in Jimmy Butler’s hand had him go to work.
After hitting the game winner in the Magic’s lone win of their opening round series with Toronto, DJ Augustin did not mince words, telling reporters that Orlando was targeting former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol in a pick-and-roll late in the game and on the game winning play. While still being a stout post defender (just ask Joel Embiid), Gasol is now 34 years old and not adept at sticking with a player like Butler.
On one second half play, Butler turned Gasol into a screener on his own defender to create space, while drawing a crucial foul on the big man as the Raptors made their final push in the 4th quarter. An Embiid pick-and-pop screen for Butler is what eventually lead to the big man’s game clinching bucket in the last minute of action.
After the Game 1 loss, Brown was quoted as saying “adjustments rule the day”, and for now those adjustments have given him the edge over Nick Nurse in this coaching battle. How both teams respond in Game 3 Thursday night will go a long way in deciding which of these team advances to the Eastern Conference Finals.