76ers

You can always count on 'free spirit' Jimmy Butler for entertainment — and intensity

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You can always count on 'free spirit' Jimmy Butler for entertainment — and intensity

CAMDEN, N.J. — Just about every time Jimmy Butler steps in front of the media, you’re going to be entertained.

Butler began his media availability Tuesday by talking about dominating members of the Sixers’ coaching and player development staff after each practice. 

“When I’m done beating up everybody one-one-one, that’s when it’s time to hit the showers,” he said.

Asked who he played with, Butler called out player development specialist Remy Ndiaye.

“I be tearing Remy up,” Butler said. 

He then yelled, loud enough so Ndiaye could hear on the opposite court, “Remy, what’s up, boy?! I be beating Remy like he stole something.”

Just beneath the surface of Butler’s playful antics lies a fierce competitiveness. Head coach Brett Brown is a big fan of that unique combination of eccentricity and ruthlessness.

To me he’s fantastic because I think if you can talk with somebody, you can coach him. He’s fun to talk with. He’s got such a tremendous personality. He’s a free spirit — there are lots of great players that have that maverick in them. He’s not like a ‘yes, sir, no, sir’ Boy Scout guy, and that’s fine by me. It’s an enjoyable conversation. His growth — and you can see it on his face, he shines. He’s got tremendous personality. I like that. I think that’s helpful for the team, and I’m seeing it in increments.

Brown is a fan of Butler’s intense approach to every practice, every possession, even every supposedly friendly game with an assistant coach. The Sixers have held three straight opponents under 100 points, and Brown attributes much of that simply to the type of consistent effort Butler brings to the table.

“It starts with defense,” he said. “I think that it can galvanize a team. I think that the accountability of a teammate has a further chance of growth. I think when a team takes ownership as a team, it has a further chance. Good teams are certainly held accountable by their coach. I think great teams are held accountable by each other.”

Wednesday night’s game in Toronto is a more challenging matchup for the Sixers, who have won eight of their last nine games and sit three games behind the first-place Raptors in the Eastern Conference.

Butler said he feels no extra responsibility to lift the Sixers over the best team in the conference, and no extra motivation to win his individual matchup with Kawhi Leonard.

“Nah,” Butler said. “I go in every matchup, I don’t care who you are. I’m going to try to get the best of you, help my team win. I like Kawhi, good friend of mine. But in between those lines, I’m fouling the hell out of him and Kyle [Lowry.]”

The Sixers will have Jonah Bolden available for Wednesday night’s game, while Wilson Chandler will also return to the floor. Bolden has been sidelined since suffering a cortical crack in the proximal fibula of his right leg while playing for the Delaware Blue Coats on Nov. 17. Chandler missed Sunday’s game vs. the Grizzlies with a left quad contusion.

Of course, the Sixers will also have Butler on Wednesday night as they try to snap a 12-game losing streak in Toronto. Without Butler, they lost on Oct. 30, 129-112.

“No pressure,” Butler said. “I do want to win, but if we do happen to win, I don’t want y’all to say, ‘oh, because Jimmy’s here now, that’s the reason.’ That’s not the case at all. I have to play at my very best, along with everyone on the roster. We’ll have to play damn near perfect basketball to beat them at home. But I think we’re capable of it, to show we’re one of the elite teams in the East.”

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Sixers vs. Heat: 3 storylines to watch and how to live stream the game

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Sixers vs. Heat: 3 storylines to watch and how to live stream the game

Fresh off the All-Star break, the Sixers (37-21) look to build on their 23-7 home record Thursday at Wells Fargo Center (23-7) against the Miami Heat (26-30).

Here are the essentials:

• When: 7 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 6:30 p.m.
• Where: Wells Fargo Center 
• Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia
• Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch:

No Jo Jo

On Wednesday, we found out that Joel Embiid has been dealing with left knee soreness for a few weeks now. Despite an MRI revealing no structural damage, the plan, for precautionary reasons, is to sit him out for approximately one week, at which point he will be re-evaluated. Brett Brown says that Boban Marjanovic will start in Embiid's place, and Jonah Bolden will likely regain some of the minutes that he’s lost since the Tobias Harris trade. Though Marjanovic is certainly capable of sliding into Embiid’s starting spot, look out for Miami to run quick-hitting pick and rolls to take advantage of Marjanovic’s slower foot speed.  

Who will step up?

Even without Embiid in the lineup, the Sixers have four guys in their starting lineup averaging at least 16.0 points per game. No other team has more than three players averaging 16-plus. That means business as usual in terms of normal play and flow, and taking advantage of the amount of dribble-out players they now have. But, if it comes down to crunch time, without Embiid, who steps up? Brown says he thinks it will be Jimmy Butler. Look out for that Harris-Butler two-man game.

Butler and Dwyane Wade

Speaking of Butler, he’ll have the chance to go up against one of his good friends tonight in Dwyane Wade, who also happens to be averaging 14.0 points and 4.3 assists off the bench in his 15th season.  Butler and Wade (both Marquette guys) played together in Chicago, where Butler says they trained and vacationed together. They also like to give each other a hard time, so watch out for when they’re both on the floor together.

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Exploring Sixers' 'Ear tug world,' a fundamental part of team's offense

Exploring Sixers' 'Ear tug world,' a fundamental part of team's offense

If you’ve ever noticed Brett Brown tugging on his ear on the sideline, chances are he’s calling an action out of the Sixers’ “Ear tug world.” 

It’s a series that begins with what many teams call a “Horns” alignment — two men at the elbows and two in the corners. The Sixers’ Ear tug world is one of the fundamental parts of the team’s offense, and assistant coach Monty Williams has played a key role in shaping it (see story). 

With the Sixers taking a break from competitive basketball for the past week, we decided to explore the team’s Ear tug world in more detail.

The lob 

The lob is the most basic Ear tug action. When the primary option is the lob — often after timeouts — the Sixers sometimes call this play “Elbow rub,” per Mike O’Connor of The Athletic.

The man at one elbow curls around a screen from the man at the other elbow at “the nail” (middle of the foul line). He’s open a surprising amount of the time. 

Some of the Sixers’ Ear tug actions start with a flare around the first screen instead of a curl directly to the rim. After flaring off Boban Marjanovic’s screen, Jimmy Butler read Jamal Murray’s overplay well and made a sharp back cut. An alley-oop was again the end result.

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Spicing it up 

On the play below, Joel Embiid sets a screen at the nail for Wilson Chandler. However, you can tell the play isn’t designed for a lob to Chandler by his rather casual trot in the direction of the hoop. Instead, Ben Simmons gives the ball to Embiid, who dribbles into an inverted pick-and-roll with JJ Redick. 

You’ll notice this a lot with Redick and Embiid — because Redick is guarded so closely, as a screener he’s often able to basically wedge his man into Embiid’s defender.

The Sixers also sometimes have Redick run around screens in their Ear tug world.

As usual, this play starts off with a screen at the nail. And again, you can tell the Sixers aren’t looking for a lob initially — Murray plays physical defense on Tobias Harris, who doesn’t seem too concerned with getting all the way to the rim.

The Sixers instead have Simmons dish it to Embiid at the top of the key, and the big man hands it to Jimmy Butler. Off the ball, Redick brushes around down screens from Harris and Embiid and dips in for a jumper. 

Embiid post-ups are a frequent Ear tug objective. The goal isn’t for Embiid to curl around a screen for a lob, but for him to establish position on the block. 

Below is a simple example, with Landry Shamet and Embiid the two men at the elbows. Shamet flashes across Embid to the wing, Embiid goes down low, and the Sixers clear out the left side of the floor to give him maximum space to work.

Brown introduced a clever action to get Simmons a post-up on Jan. 19 vs. the Thunder. The play started with Redick darting across Chandler’s screen at the elbow. Redick is essentially in Shamet’s spot on the play above, with Chandler in Embiid’s place. But instead of Chandler stationing himself in the post once Redick receives the pass from Simmons at the wing, he stays at the elbow.

There, he sets a back screen for Simmons, and the point guard makes a UCLA cut to the left block. When Simmons drives baseline, Jonah Bolden frees up Jimmy Butler with a back screen on the weak side of the floor.

A similar action got Simmons an easy dunk on Jan. 8 against Washington, though it wasn’t technically part of the Sixers’ Ear tug world.

Simmons tosses the ball to Embiid at the top of the key, then accelerates to the hoop off Chandler’s back screen at the elbow. 

These sort of basic actions are a lot more effective than you might think they’d be, looking at them on paper. And because the Sixers get so many successful lobs out of their Ear tug world, teams now have to be wary of that option. 

That makes the creative layers Brown and Williams have added to the Sixers’ Ear tug world a greater threat. 

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