When a team is two games away from the Eastern Conference Finals and fresh off a blowout win in front of a ecstatic home crowd, the norm is to hear about how everyone is gelling well, the pieces are fitting perfectly, and the chemistry is excellent.
Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler didn’t characterize the Sixers that way after the team’s 116-95 win Thursday night over the Raptors in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series (see observations). They were both pleased with the team's performance, sure, but there was a word both wanted to avoid in describing it.
“I think chemistry is a bad word," Butler said. "Everybody wants to say that because we played together however many games, we didn't play together however many games. It's simple enough to know that whenever you have some good basketball players out there, the game happens. You make the right plays, you do what you're supposed to do with the basketball, and that's all it is. The game is really, really simple. I think at times we, as players, decide to make it hard, but if you're open, shoot it, if you're not, pass.”
For what it’s worth, the Sixers’ starting five has now played 17 total games together and lost only four. Their plus-34.5 net rating in the playoffs is the best of any five-man lineup that’s played at least 100 minutes together.
Embiid, after a 33-point, 10-rebound, five-block night, agreed with Butler’s assessment.
I still feel like we have so much potential, especially with Tobias [Harris], Ben [Simmons], JJ [Redick]. Just like [Jimmy] said, chemistry is overrated. When you have great basketball players on the floor, it's easy. It's not that complicated. We're all willing passers. We're so unselfish. We understand that it's all about moving the ball. We don't want to ever get in situations where one guy has the ball and trying to create. We know that we got to move the ball. It just makes it easier.
The notion that “chemistry is overrated” is likely, in part, semantics. The Sixers have been asked about how their chemistry is growing, whether they have enough time to develop their chemistry or some variation of that question at practically every media availability since Elton Brand’s splashy trade deadline. Hearing a word that nobody appears to fully understand but everybody seems to use regularly might be exasperating.
Unlike Butler and Embiid, Simmons didn’t mind talking about chemistry. In fact, he brought it up unprompted after the game when asked about the Sixers’ balanced offensive night. All five starters scored in double figures, while James Ennis also added 10 points.
“Everybody’s a threat,” Simmons said. “Our chemistry is building over time, it’s getting a lot better, and I think we’re at the point where we’re kind of figuring it out.”
Toronto in Games 2 and 3 looked reliant on the brilliant Kawhi Leonard, who's averaging 35.7 points on 63.8 percent shooting in this series, to generate their offense. The Raptors have been outscored by 32 points in the 27 minutes Leonard has been on the bench.
The Sixers, in contrast, have had options when Embiid has been double teamed, Simmons has been stymied in transition, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick have been cold or Butler has assumed a more passive role.
There’s no perfect way to balance their stars’ respective strengths and weaknesses, and the combinations might be clunky at times. But, whether you call it chemistry or call it something else, this team is playing together at a high level.
“… There's an inverted attitude that I love — we're trying to guard,” Brett Brown said. “We're really trying to play defense. … And so when we come down to the offensive end, the evolution of Jimmy [Butler] with the ball, or posting Jo [Embiid], or utilizing Ben [Simmons], bringing JJ [Redick] off screens, making sure Tobias [Harris], who can score a bunch of different ways, is used. I think it's evolving, but I can't pinpoint a time. I can tell you winning sure allows us to keep it moving forward.”
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