76ers

With playoffs in mind, how Sixers are developing Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler pairing

With playoffs in mind, how Sixers are developing Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler pairing

You’d be forgiven for forgetting, after all the excitement of Corey Brewer’s first two games as a Sixers starter, that the team still has a four-time All-Star named Jimmy Butler.

When Butler returns from his right wrist injury, he’ll obviously be vital to the Sixers’ success, and the development of his partnership with Joel Embiid will be critical for the Sixers.

It’s a pairing head coach Brett Brown is determined to grow, as he said last Tuesday after the Sixers beat the Timberwolves.

My mind is always, ‘what’s coming?’ And that is playoff basketball. Those two guys will be featured a lot. Last year it was Joel and JJ [Redick] a lot, and that will still happen. But at the end of the day, I really think that those two, Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler, will be featured in more prominent ways, maybe than any pairing.

Let’s examine the early stages of Embiid and Butler’s offensive partnership and how it could grow.

The basics

The easiest way to get Butler and Embiid working in tandem is the pick-and-roll. 

Butler has generally preferred to reject Embiid’s screen, dribbling in the opposite direction instead of using the pick.

And Embiid’s preference has been to pop instead of rolling to the basket. 

Because defenses are aware of those tendencies, Butler and Embiid have had a fair amount of early success when they've deviated from the norm.

A more conventional pick-and-roll worked well on the play below against the Pacers. Butler’s penetration forced Myles Turner to lunge at him and Embiid was open for a layup as a result.

The most promising (and predictable) part of Butler-Embiid pick-and-rolls is how much attention the two draw from the defense. 

Patrick Patterson recovers well to block Mike Muscala on the play below, but notice how much space Muscala has because of the Thunder’s focus on Butler and Embiid. 

New layers 

In our film review from two weeks ago, we noted that the first play Brown ran for Butler on Jan. 8 vs. Washington was a pin-down screen from Embiid flowing into a side pick-and-roll.

The Sixers have recently introduced an additional component to that play, a bit of misdirection. The point guard and power forward now run a pick-and-pop to start the action, with the four-man feeding Butler on the wing.

Brown has also added another action with Butler, Embiid and Simmons as the centerpieces.

Butler loops up to the top of the key off Embiid’s screen at the elbow. Simmons gives him the ball, then gets a back screen from Embiid and cuts hard to the front of the rim.

It’s a promising play with a variety of options that the Sixers are just starting to explore, including Embiid coming up to screen for Butler if Simmons isn’t open in the post. 

The possibilities 

When Simmons gets the ball in the post, the Sixers like to make “split cuts” off him, meaning that the player who gave Simmons an entry pass and the next closest perimeter player are involved in a two-man screening action.

Below is a good example. Butler gives Simmons the ball in the post, then receives a back screen from JJ Redick. The off-ball movement gives Simmons space to work down low.

The Sixers rarely make split cuts off Embiid. Though you can understand the desire to give him as much room as possible and not potentially clog the lane with cutters, smart split cuts with Embiid in the post would remove a potential help defender. And given how excellent of a cutter Butler is, he’s the perfect man to involve in such an action. 

Another way to get more out of the Butler-Embiid pairing could be occasionally plugging Butler into the point guard spot on certain sets, giving him a chance to attack downhill from the top of the key.

You can easily imagine him thriving on the play below, which Embiid often runs with T.J. McConnell. 

McConnell passes to Embiid at the elbow, then gets the ball back and waits a half-second for Embiid to reposition himself for a pick-and-roll.

The timing on those type of plays takes a little time to develop, but the Sixers have a few months until the playoffs. As Brown said, that’s when his stars all being able to play well together is most essential. For the time being, it can’t hurt to keep trying to build the Embiid-Butler duo.

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Sixers seal spot in second round of NBA playoffs with elite, record-tying defensive performance in win over Nets

Sixers seal spot in second round of NBA playoffs with elite, record-tying defensive performance in win over Nets

Before his team took the floor, Brett Brown admitted the Sixers had “dodged some bullets” in their first four games against the Nets. He was especially wary of Joe Harris, the NBA leader in three-point percentage during the regular season, noting the open looks he’d missed.

The Sixers’ defense made sure Brooklyn didn’t have any more bullets in the chamber Tuesday night in a 122-100 win that sealed a spot in the second round (see observations).

Though aided by Brooklyn’s abysmal effort, the Sixers’ first-half defensive performance couldn’t have been much better.

Ben Simmons smothered D’Angelo Russell, who shot 1 for 9 in the half. Jimmy Butler hunted the ball, recording three steals and causing chaos. The rotations were sharp, the communication crisp, and the intensity only escalated as the Nets’ shoulders collectively slumped. 

Brooklyn at one stage had as many made field goals as turnovers (seven). It finished the half with 31 points, tied for the fewest the Sixers have ever allowed in a playoff game, per Basketball-Reference. 

“Maybe the best we’ve defended all season, given the problems they present for our team,” JJ Redick said. “The first half was as good as you can guard.”

Defense was a concern for the Sixers entering the playoffs. Third in defensive rating in 2017-18, they finished this year tied for 13th. Pick-and-roll defense was a familiar problem. The big-picture question Brown posed at the start of training camp about how to cope when teams went small and tried to pull Joel Embiid away from the rim remained open throughout the season. 

They seem to have hit on some solutions, though simply having superior individual perimeter defenders compared to last season’s team might be the most important one. 

“I’m not going to say anything about last year's guys,” Embiid said, “but it doesn't make a difference. We got to stick to the game plan and usually the game plan is to drive all these guys to me and let me do my job as the best defensive player in the league.”

An excellent fourth quarter in Game 4 and a record-tying half in Game 5 doesn’t indicate that the Sixers’ defense is flawless. They’ve yet to show they can defend this well on a consistent basis, and potential liabilities like Redick and Boban Marjanovic will likely be challenged more in the second round against the Raptors. 

The Sixers have demonstrated, however, that all the platitudes about defense fueling offense and being a priority in the playoffs are more than just words.

“I think [losing Game 1] immediately forced us into recognizing that we are vulnerable if we don't play like we got to play defense,” Brown said. “If I were to go to one specific thing, the first game was a reminder that we better guard the way that we said we wanted to defend them or it's going to be a long series and one that we could lose.”

Regardless of whether Redick is making shots or Simmons is effective in the half court or Embiid can dominate Marc Gasol and company, this level of defense should keep the Sixers in every game. 

If Butler is to be believed, the Sixers are capable.

He didn’t agree with Redick that this was the best the Sixers have defended all season.

“Nah,” he said, unmoved. “We’ve been locking up at practice.”

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Sixers embracing championship expectations after beating Nets in first round

Sixers embracing championship expectations after beating Nets in first round

The expectations were high for the Sixers coming into the season.

Two blockbuster trades later and those expectations have only grown.

After taking care of the Brooklyn Nets with a 122-100 beating in Game 5 Tuesday night (see observations), they’ve made it into the Eastern Conference’s final four where they’ll face a stiff test in the Toronto Raptors. 

Even Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, whose team was eliminated after being thoroughly dominated in Game 5, said the Sixers “can compete for a championship.”

“That’s what we think,” Joel Embiid said. “We think we can win it all. Obviously, it is going to take a lot. You’ve got some great teams in the league. We’re about to play one of them and I don’t know who the next one is going to be, either Milwaukee or Boston, and then you’ve got the West, which is pretty tough. We just got to take one game at a time, but we understand that we’ve got all the talent that we need, especially to win it all.”

The Sixers haven’t shied away from expectations since general manager Elton Brand pulled off deals for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. After losing Game 1, it put a bit of a damper to the start of a postseason filled with so much hope.

The uneasiness wasn’t cured after having a narrow halftime lead in Game 2, but a tongue lashing by Brett Brown led to a record-setting third quarter. They faced even more misfortune when they found out Embiid was going to miss Game 3, but Ben Simmons’ strong performance carried them to a win. They found themselves down for most of Game 4, but executed down the stretch to win a thriller.

Then, with a chance to end the series at home, they jumped all over the Nets on their way to a fourth straight win. It was an impressive response from a team that’s still working out the kinks of a sometimes-dominant starting five.

Sometimes a little adversity is good for a group still trying to come together.

“I think if you’re going through a very intense, pressure-filled series, it can bring you together, make you better and stronger as a team, or it can break you,” JJ Redick said. “This series brought us together and obviously from here it just gets tougher.”

It really does.

The Sixers’ struggles against the Raptors are well-documented. Toronto is not Brooklyn. It's playoff tested and features arguably the best two-way player in basketball in Kawhi Leonard.

But for the Sixers to get to where they want to go, they need to figure out a way to accelerate the development of their chemistry and beat one of the league’s best.

“We have a team that is slowly coming together,” Brown said. “They don’t have the luxury of lots of games and lots of context to share upon … this is good. Beating Brooklyn and advancing to the second round … this is good. It can’t be discredited as, ‘Oh, you should.’ On paper, we should, but you’re still playing against a team that was a team … 

“I will answer it like that and conclude with we still have more to do — a lot more to do.”

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