If moving without the ball is a lost art in the NBA, Sixers guard JJ Redick is Rembrandt with a jump shot. He runs no fewer than 2.52 miles a game, according to SportVU — approximately all of them at a full sprint, and approximately none of them in a straight line.
A defender will dog Redick’s every step as he slaloms off screens, forever seeking a sliver of daylight to launch that pristine shot. There will be clutching and grabbing, cursing and gabbing.
It is a fascinating game within the game, a literal running feud.
“I embrace it,” Redick said late Wednesday night, after providing 20 points in a 112-106 victory over San Antonio.
The Spurs mostly used their JVs because Gregg Popovich is, as always, playing the long game, ticketholders be damned. But with the verdict hanging in the balance and less than a minute left, Redick found himself matched against Patty Mills, one of San Antonio’s longtime rotational staples.
For an instant they were frozen in place on the left wing — indeed, one of the few moments all night Redick was not in motion — as Joel Embiid handled the ball just to the left of the circle.
“It was a set play,” Redick said, “and we kind of screwed up the passing angle a little bit.”
He was supposed to receive the ball, then engage in a two-man game with Embiid. But now Embiid had the rock, and Mills was preventing him from darting toward his teammate, as well as the head of the key — “top-blocking,” as Redick called it.
Redick feinted toward the baseline, as if he were going to go backdoor, then darted back toward Embiid.
“Sometimes,” Redick said, “that’s just setting your guy up and giving him a little nudge.”
Which he did in fact deliver, creating just enough space to receive Embiid’s pass and bury the jumper that put the Sixers up 108-104 with 35.9 seconds left.
“It was,” Mills said, “classic Redick.”
Mills is well aware of his wiles, having often faced the former Clipper the last four years in the Western Conference. Doesn’t make it any easier, though.
“You’ve got to have your antennas up at all times when you’re guarding him, and not just the people that have the project on him,” Mills said. “Everyone on the floor’s got to know where he’s at at all times. He’s been a beast on all the teams he’s played.”
An interesting choice of words, seeing as “beast” is a term normally reserved for physical freaks like the 7-2 Embiid. But Redick, a mere 6-4, has that jumper; he nailed 3 of 4 three-point attempts Wednesday, is shooting 40.2 percent from the arc this season and 41.4 percent in his 12-year career. (His scoring average this season — 17.2 — is also a career high.)
Then there’s all that running. Only 11 NBA players, all of them far younger than the 33-year-old Redick, run more miles each night, according to SportVU. (The league leader is Portland guard C.J. McCollum, at 2.78; Sixers rookie Ben Simmons is second, at 2.68.)
That’s an obvious tribute to Redick’s conditioning. Doughy in his early years at Duke, he transformed his body late in his college career, then took it to the next level his first few seasons in the NBA, under the lash of Joe Rogowski, then Orlando’s conditioning coach.
All the while Redick was learning about off-the-ball tactics from watching (and facing) guys like Ray Allen and Rip Hamilton — lessons that are reinforced these days by Golden State’s Klay Thompson and a handful of others.
“I would describe it at times as hand-to-hand combat,” Redick said.
For that reason, he spends as much offseason time working on his upper body as he does his lower extremities.
“I know I don’t look it, but I’m actually pretty strong (at 195 pounds),” he said. “As much as it is just being in great cardio shape, it’s also just having the strength to just create that separation.”
Besides his pivotal moment against Mills on Wednesday, there was a play late in the first quarter where he, uh, nudged Brandon Paul and freed himself up for a three, then a three-possession stretch in the second when he took a dribble handoff from T.J. McConnell and connected from the arc; lost Darrun Hilliard on screens by Embiid and Dario Saric, took another pass from McConnell and dropped in a layup; and coaxed in the first two of three free throws after drawing a foul from Dejounte Murray on a three-point attempt.
At other times, Redick was used as a screener. It is a role in which he excels, coach Brett Brown said, because his defender is loath to switch off him.
And at all times he was active — forever running, forever crafting another masterpiece.