For once, Robert Covington steals the show

For once, Robert Covington steals the show

It’s usually easy to notice when Robert Covington doesn’t play well. Missed threes, getting torched by the opposing star, bad fouls — the signs are obvious.

It’s not always as clear to recognize when Covington does play well, but everyone who watched the Sixers beat the Hornets on Saturday night, 105-103 (see observations), was reminded how important Covington is to this team.

Head coach Brett Brown said postgame Covington was the Sixers’ bell ringer (the player Brown chooses to ring a miniature replica Liberty Bell in the locker room after a win), and that’s no surprise. 

Covington was excellent on both ends of the floor. Defensively, he was his usual, disruptive self with two steals and four blocks. Covington was tasked with guarding Kemba Walker, who entered averaging 30.8 points per game on 49.2 percent shooting. Walker scored 37 on Saturday, but he shot 11 for 31.

Much of his success came when Covington was off the floor. Covington guarded Walker late in the fourth quarter, and he shut him down when it mattered. 

“Robert Covington played an amazing game on Kemba, made it tough for him to score,” Ben Simmons. “But also, you know, it’s Kemba, so he’s always going to score. But I thought he did a great job.”

A lot of what Covington excels at doesn’t show up in the box score —  another 20-point, 10-rebound night from Joel Embiid is often going to get more headlines than solid off-ball defense and deflections.

Covington takes on the responsibility of guarding the opponent’s best player most nights. Through the first five games, he hadn’t played to the First Team All-Defense standard he set last year, and the Sixers' defense overall had't been very good. in fact, Covington's 112.7 defensive rating was actually second-worst on the team heading into the game vs. Charlotte. 

But against one of the better scorers in the NBA, Covington knew he needed to be at his best.

“Short, quick, shifty, quick burst speed,” Covington said of Walker. “But I gotta guard some great superstars each and every night. So it was just another one of those tasks that I had to buckle down. We needed a win, so I had to do whatever it takes.”

Offensively, Covington hit perhaps the biggest shot of the game for the Sixers, a three-pointer from the right wing with just under two minutes remaining to put the Sixers up, 105-101. His 18 points (4 for 7 from three-point range) were needed on a night in which Simmons made just 5 of 20 field-goal attempts.

Covington knows his contributions tend to fly under the radar and he says that doesn’t bother him.

“From the outside looking in, a lot of people don’t understand what all goes into it,” he said. “You can’t get caught up in that. The people who understand the way the game is and how everything goes can get a better feel for it, how everything happens. You just can’t get caught in what they’re saying, you just have to focus in.” 

There probably won’t be many more games this season where Covington’s value is so apparent to the casual observer. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz are usually going to steal the show.

But on Saturday night, Covington made it obvious how integral he is to the Sixers’ success.

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James Harden may be MVP favorite, but Joel Embiid makes statement

James Harden may be MVP favorite, but Joel Embiid makes statement

Joel Embiid was listed as questionable for Monday night’s game, still dealing with back tightness.

With the league’s MVP favorite in the building and a national TV audience to shine for, there was little chance Embiid was going to miss this one.

Thanks in large part to the All-Star center, the Sixers rolled against James Harden and the Rockets, 121-93, at the Wells Fargo Center (see observations). Embiid’s stat line was again impressive — 32 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks in 26 minutes — but hardly shows the impact he had.

Veterans Nene and Kenneth Faired looked helpless against the league’s best big man. Then again, with the way Embiid was rolling, it’s hard to imagine anyone could’ve stopped him. While Harden may be running away with the MVP award, Embiid made a statement on Monday.

He did his best to downplay the notion that Harden’s presence added any extra motivation.

“I do whatever my team needs me to do and that’s score the ball, be the best defensive player in the league, “Embiid said. “It’s good, everybody’s winning. If MVP comes with it, great. But right now we’re looking to win a lot of games and we’re doing that.”

Embiid has won the city of Philadelphia over with his game, but also his larger-than-life personality. His feuds with Andre Drummond and Russell Westbrook have reached legendary status. His Twitter and Instagram accounts have always been must-follows.

But you’ve seen less of it this season. As Embiid has matured and the goals of the team have gotten bigger, Embiid’s focus seems to have grown. Not as much trolling and what could’ve been viewed as silly arrogance has turned more into honest confidence.

And with all the injuries and minutes restrictions Embiid has dealt with, playing through some muscle soreness in his back isn’t hard.

I've been with him now for five years and the growth that he has shown through two naviculars, gaining weight, unsure if he's going to play,” Brett Brown said. “We sent him to the Middle East to find ways to help him recover and for him to come back and be rewarded with a contract, to be in MVP conversations — I appreciate him gutting something out, that is true, but it's the overall growth and the leadership especially that interests me the most.

While Harden is seen as the hands-down favorite for MVP, Embiid doesn’t even really seem to be in the conversation. Guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and Stephen Curry seem to get all the attention.

Embiid is doing his best not to focus on that and while he has grown up before our eyes, he’s still having as much fun as ever.

The trash talking and trolling has quieted some, but we still get the occasional nugget.

“It was fun. We beat them by 30, so it was pretty fun for us, I don’t think it was fun for them,” Embiid said. “But [Harden’s] a great player. Have a lot of respect for him. The way they play, you just gotta key in on him and have guys like Corey [Brewer] that are really getting to him. … He’s fun. 

“I love playing against guys that you guys might say are better than me, just to prove to you guys that they’re not, but it’s fun to me.”

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Corey Brewer frustrates James Harden, earns cult hero status

Corey Brewer frustrates James Harden, earns cult hero status

It seemed like Corey Brewer had a smile on his face from the moment Brett Brown told him he’d be starting through his postgame availability.

Then again, in the short time he’s been around, it seems like this might just be the kind of guy Brewer is.

Signed last Tuesday to a 10-day contract by the Sixers, his eighth NBA team, Brewer was out there for anyone to snag. The 32-year-old wing has championship experience and started every game of a playoff series for the Thunder just a little under nine months ago.

But up until last week, he was on his couch. In Monday's win over the Rockets (see observations), he was starting in place of All-Star Jimmy Butler for a team with championship aspirations and asked to guard the most unguardable human on the planet.

I was happy,” Brewer said when asked about his reaction to getting the start. “I get to play basketball. I’ve been sitting down, playing with my kids. I’ve been playing superheroes every day. I was really happy to get to play basketball. I’m a competitor. I love when I get to have a matchup like James Harden. It’s great. Let’s go.

As glad as Brewer was to be out there, this didn’t seem like an ideal matchup. 

Harden came to the Wells Fargo Center Monday looking like the NBA’s clear MVP favorite — and it doesn’t seem particularly close. He’s been playing on another planet from the rest of the league.

But for how pleasant Brewer was during his pre- and postgame availability, there was definitely a different guy out there getting in the grill of the league’s most dominant offensive player. It was clear Brewer’s goal was to frustrate Harden.

Mission accomplished.

He had some tenacity. There was swagger there,” Brown said. “I think Corey just set the stage. He set the table that spilt over with a pretty solid 48-minute performance defensively on [Harden]. For him to [finish] with eight free throws in itself is a good accomplishment.

Sure, Harden still poured in 37 points, but Brewer and company clearly got under his skin. 

There were multiple possessions in which Harden grew visibly annoyed by his former teammate in the second quarter. After the second such instance, Harden was whistled for a foul, much to the delight of the Wells Fargo Center crowd.

The fans were so appreciative that a “Cor-ey Brew-er” chant broke out. Signed to a 10-day deal and playing in just his second game, Brewer is already a cult hero in Philadelphia.

It’s Philly. They hate you or love you. I’m glad they’re on my side right now,” Brewer said. “I fit right in, I feel. We got everything — we’ve got a guy like Jimmy, a guy like Ben [Simmons], we’ve got [Joel Embiid]. Everybody else, we just gotta try to fit in. It’s all about getting to the next level, and that’s getting to the Finals.

It’s amazing that a player with Brewer’s résumé was just sitting out there. The biggest knock on him is his inability to hit threes. Basketball has shifted to such a three-heavy sport — Harden being a prime example — that Brewer’s career 28 percent mark from three perhaps overshadowed his value.

You saw that value on Monday. He’s a crazy long athlete that loves to defend. Brown mentioned when they signed Brewer that he envisioned the veteran wing flying down the court with Simmons in transition.

Well …

This all begs the question: How the hell was this dude out there?

“Isn’t that what life’s all about? You get an opportunity and you hope to deliver. He did deliver,” Brown said. “I think that's what stands out most to me is you have to imagine when you’re not with a team and you’re trying to get back in the league, what you have to do physically to come out and play 34 minutes … 

“He’s good people and I’m thrilled he had the opportunity and to live it like he did.”

With how he performed Monday, Brewer certainly earned more opportunities.

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