Jan. 14, 2017
Sixers Ride Strong Play On Both Ends To A Win Over Charlotte To Make It Three Straight
The final score didn't reflect it but tonight's win over the Hornets was an impressive one. It happened because the Sixers played very tough, fundamentally sound defense for most of the game and were able to keep Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum in check. It happened because they had very good ball movement to set up great looks, most of which they converted. It happened because every time Charlotte got close, the Sixers went on a run to increase their lead again. Most impressively, it was just the Sixers' third win this season against a team with a winning record.
And it was made possible by a run in the first quarter after Charlotte had tied the game at 11.
After not getting the call on the driving shot through contact we've seen from him lately on the previous play, Ersan made an excellent pass to set up a wide open three from Gerald Henderson to retake the lead. This play came after Ersan had already bailed the team out with multiple defensive rebounds and had bailed out TJ McConnell with an offensive rebound off of an ill-advised shot that TJ of course missed.
After Batum drew the foul on Covington on the other end while attempting the three, Henderson couldn't repay the favor to Ersan so he instead found the player who had come in for him. That player was Dario Saric, who drilled the three to again give the Sixers a three point lead. Saric forced a long jumper a few plays later that he airballed but would settle down and get into a groove as he has in most games to this point.
The reason Saric settled down after forcing that shot was playing next to Sergio Rodriguez, who turned in a very strong performance as the backup point guard tonight after struggling to find his bearings a bit since returning from sitting out due to his sprained ankle.
Sergio completely settled the Sixers down on offense and got them playing in rhythm and under control on that end, and he even played tough defense at times. He also hit a big three that he followed up with an excellent pass to set up a Dario Saric three the next time down the court.
Like Nik Stauskas did in his absence, Sergio completely bailed out the Sixers as the backup point guard after TJ had gotten them out of rhythm like he always does. If not for that, the Sixers don't win this game tonight. Period.
Along with the aforementioned Ersan Ilyasova, Gerald Henderson, and Sergio Rodriguez, Robert Covington had another strong game and hit a big three to give the Sixers their first points and get them going offensively.
Covington has looked a bit more like himself ever since breaking out in the second half in -and really being responsible for- the win against Brooklyn. He's shot the ball better at times and has been aggressive offensively whether to score in the paint or set up his teammates off of his strong drives.
He's also been the Sixers' best perimeter defender since their win over Minnesota -along with TLC. He not only did all of that but also played excellent help defense in the paint to help the bigs stifle Charlotte down low. We saw yet again the impact Covington can have on a game in all aspects, and this was far from his best game offensively.
It should come as no surprise that both Nerlens and Dario Saric had yet another strong game off the bench as we've all seen what both can do, time and time again. Therefore I'm going to gloss over those two and put a spotlight on the play of Nik Stauskas and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot.
Stauskas struggled shooting early but he was excellent as a distributor and facilitator tonight, making perfect, timely passes to set up teammates for easy looks without even having to dribble the ball let alone adjust before converting the attempt.
He had two particularly excellent passes to Joel Embiid that were so perfect and perfectly-times that Embiid caught them in stride and didn't have to dribble once, thus being able to continue his forward momentum and force Charlotte to foul. That is what a real point guard does and something TJ has literally never done once.
He also moved very well without the ball -setting himself up to convert a laser-accurate direct pass from Dario Saric for a layup. Most impressively though, Nik played very tough defense and even got up into the body of the offensive player he was guarding.
TLC had yet another strong game on both ends. He got called for two fouls on jump-shooters that were in my opinion phantom calls but he played the excellent, tough perimeter defense we've come to expect from him.
What was most impressive though was the way TLC looked offensively. He was deliberate and under control with the ball in his hands, aggressive but not erratic, and was an excellent and willing passer.
What most fans will remember about his two man game with Joel Embiid on that one possession is Embiid's thunderous dunk at the end but what I took notice of was just how great TLC looked with the ball in his hands. His handles were excellent, he was quick yet completely under control with the ball in his hands, and he even flashed some little things like between the legs dribbles that shows he's completely comfortable now with the ball in his hands.
This is a huge development for a guy who has the kind of potential TLC does yet was very raw early on, as was the fact that he brought the ball up at least once and calmly made the exact right play to start the possession. Like I've said all year, it's the little things that will matter this season when it comes to TLC.
One of the most important takeaways from tonight's win is the fact that Brett Brown's rotations are becoming a lot more fixed and structured, and it's causing the team to gel. More important than that though is the fact that the lineups he is playing the most are ones that allow the players who are still developing to play to their strengths and know that there's players around them that will pick up the slack in other areas.
The ability of Nik Stauskas and Ersan Ilyasova to be excellent secondary facilitators for the most part cancels out TJ's atrocious play as the starting point guard, and Ilyasova's consistent offense takes the pressure to score off of guys like Stauskas and Covington. Covington being a lockdown perimeter defender takes the pressure off of Stauskas on that end and allows him to just dig in and try to stay in front of his man, and well we all know what playing next to Embiid does for Ersan and vice versa.
What's most important about these rotations though is the second unit.
When Dario Saric comes in for Ersan or Covington, he now takes the floor with a second unit featuring a guy who has been one of the NBA's most underrated and complete shooting guards his entire career as well as a true point guard who is savvy, experienced, and a winner internationally. He also takes the floor with an athletic shot blocker -whether it's Nerlens or Embiid-, as well as a rookie who is turning into a lockdown perimeter defender in Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. This allows Saric to just focus on staying in front of his man defensively rather than worrying about trying to constantly help.
On the other end, the aforementioned TLC now takes the floor with a true point guard, one of two excellent distributors and very capable scorers and shooters at the two guard spot, and one of two very offensively skilled forwards who will set him up with easy looks every time he gets open. This allows him to play without any pressure on that end and play completely in rhythm, which has really caused him to continue to progress and grow in almost every single game in which he's gotten enough minutes.
The problem was never Nerlens or Hollis Thompson, and it certainly isn't Jahlil Okafor. The problem was the Sixers had too many inconsistent or developing players at every position on both ends, and that made it impossible to have fixed rotations or even have guys playing defined roles.
Holmes sitting relieves the logjam at the four, Jah sitting relieves the logjam at the five, and Hollis not being on the team anymore gives TLC and Nik Stauskas more more defined roles and thus more consistent playing time. This not only gives everybody in the rotation a more consistent and defined role but completely solidifies a bench that most nights you had no clue what you were going to get out of it. More on these lineups in a future piece.
Charlotte really struggled offensively at times with Kemba Walker having a quiet game but that's in large part because almost every single lineup the Sixers had out there tonight featured strong defenders.
If Embiid wasn't out there at the five, Nerlens was. If Ersan wasn't out there at the four, Dario Saric was. If Covington wasn't out there guarding the perimeter, then TLC, Saric, or Gerald Henderson was. There was at least one impact defender on the floor at all times both on the perimeter and in the paint. This allowed the other three players on the floor to just try to stay in front of their man, and in the case of everybody but TJ they did for the most part.
What won this game though was the Sixers' offense.
Ever since Sergio came into the game as the backup point guard and completely settled down the offense and got the team playing under control on that end, the Sixers were completely in control on that end. Even when TJ would come in and get guys out of rhythm or blow the lead, the other four players on the court would make the right plays to set up their teammates time and time again. Every time Charlotte got close, somebody made a play to get the Sixers going on another run to increase the lead. With the exception of a few stretches, it was unselfish, team-first basketball at its finest.
We saw tonight what the Sixers are capable of when they play even remotely up to their capabilities on both ends. Everybody on this team other than TJ is a team-first, unselfish, do whatever it takes to win type of player, and we've seen that time and time again this season.
They share the ball and are more than willing passers despite all being very capable scorers. They fight defensively, fight for rebounds, and make those little plays that add up in a game. They want to see each other succeed, and they hold themselves to a standard offensively that is rare these days. There are very few ill-advised shots, absolutely no selfish, glory-seeking plays by anybody other than TJ, and guys will pass up even a wide-open attempt if they think a teammate has a better opportunity to score.
That's winning basketball, and it's exactly what Brett Brown has instilled in this team from Day One.