76ers

By the numbers: A closer look at Robert Covington's defensive prowess

By the numbers: A closer look at Robert Covington's defensive prowess

A key subplot during another Sixers season marred by injury has been Robert Covington's growth from rotational NBA player to legitimate starter.

Now in Year 3 with the Sixers, Covington has solidified himself as a starting-caliber 3-and-D player, a self-explanatory role that every team seeks to fill.

There will always be a place in an NBA lineup for a 6-foot-9 forward who hits threes, guards the opposing team's best perimeter player, nabs two steals per game and hits 80 percent of his free throws.

Think Trevor Ariza, Kent Bazemore, James Posey.

Covington quickly emerged as a perimeter threat when the Sixers signed him away from the D-League in November 2014. In that first season, he shot a career-best 37.4 percent from three and showed glimpses of being a lockdown defender.

He's only built on that defensive success, becoming the type of agitator that opposing coaches warn their players about.

Here are a few stats behind Covington's defensive prowess:

• The players Covington has guarded this season have a collective field goal percentage of 45.4 percent when not facing him. Against him, they've shot 42.5 percent.

From three, Covington's opponents have shot 34.5 percent against him compared to 36.2 percent against everyone else.

• Covington averages 2.9 steals per 48 minutes -- fifth-most in the NBA among players with at least 50 games this season, behind only Manu Ginobili, Chris Paul, Draymond Green and Tony Allen.

• His company is even more exclusive when you account for blocks. Covington is averaging 1.9 steals and 1.0 block per game. The only three others averaging at least 1.5 steals and 1.0 block are Green, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Andre Drummond.

• It goes beyond steals, though. How about all those times Covington strips a ball that lands in a teammate's hands, or when he knocks a pass out of bounds to force the opponent to run a new set? Covington leads the NBA with 4.3 deflections per game. The only other player above 4.0 is Green.

• Covington's offense has also improved as the season's gone on. He struggled badly from three early in the season but has made more threes each month since December:

December: 26.7 percent

January: 35.9

February: 39.1 

March: 39.7 

Remember that 0-for-11 game Covington had in Utah at the end of December? That's right around the time the boos were at their loudest.

In 35 games since, Covington has averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 2.2 steals, 1.2 blocks, shot 38 percent from three and 84 percent from the line. Talk about filling it up.

• The high arc on Covington's jumper enables him to get a three off even when a hand's in his face, but he's also become more well-rounded offensively this season. He's finishing better in traffic and adjusting his game to take more shots near the rim as defenders close out on him beyond the arc.

• And on shots between 3 and 16 feet, Covington has improved from 23.0 percent last season to 28.2 this season. Still not a good mark by any stretch, but he's improved upon that weakness. Mid-range shots are out of style in today's NBA, but you still need to show the ability to make a few to open up space elsewhere on the court.

Is Covington ever going to be a second- or third-leading scorer on a good team? Probably not, but that wasn't the role that got him to the NBA, the role that allowed him to stick with the Sixers or to grow into this 3-and-D prototype.

When you add the solid defense to those numbers over his last half-season, you get production any team would take. 

Jimmy Butler's overtime heroics lift Sixers over Hornets

Jimmy Butler's overtime heroics lift Sixers over Hornets

Jimmy Butler might not be the perfect fit for the Sixers, as many noted when he was acquired.

But on Saturday night, in the afterglow of Butler’s game-winning three-pointer with 0.3 seconds left in overtime, he felt as close to perfect as you can get for this Sixers team.

On the final possession of regulation, head coach Brett Brown cleared the floor out for Butler. His new star missed an open mid-range jumper.

On the final possession of overtime, Brown called the identical play. 

Butler’s tightly contested jumper from the right wing gave the Sixers a 122-119 over the Hornets (see observations).

It doesn’t take much creativity to find a way to win,” Brown told reporters in Charlotte. “That’s what the great players can do and it’s what we spoke about with the inclusion of him, whether it’s the pick-and-roll, isolation, to create his own looks. That is a rare gift in the NBA, the players that can do that a high rate, and he’s one of them. And he’s ours. To see that happen, to see him be able to make amends for that shot he was disappointed he missed in regulation and to have the opportunity to back it up and deliver as he did, I think it’s a tremendous feel good story, and his teammates shared in that.”

In Butler’s three games with the team, the Sixers are 2-1. Without Butler, there’s little doubt they’d be 0-3. 

He shut down Donovan Mitchell on Friday night, dished out seven assists, and scored 28 points, including eight in a tight fourth quarter. 

Saturday night felt like a different story for Butler, who shot just 4 for 11. He mostly looked out of sync with the Sixers’ offense, struggling to muster open looks and lingering in the background as Ben Simmons (23 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists) and Joel Embiid (33 points, 11 rebounds) shined. 

Butler was the primary defender on the electric Kemba Walker, who scored a career-high 60 points.

“In my head, as much as I wanted the shot to go in to win the game, I also wanted it to go in because I didn’t want Kemba to give me 70,” Butler said. “I just wanted it to stop at 60.”

In overtime, though, Butler showed exactly why the Sixers traded for him. Before Butler, the Sixers had gaping holes when it came to shot creation, shutdown perimeter defense and late-game scoring. With Butler, it appears those deficiencies no longer exist. 

Butler didn’t resign himself to Walker having an unstoppable night, even after all the improbable shots Walker had made, including a three-pointer that kissed off the backboard and went in to give Charlotte a 108-107 lead with 44.5 seconds left in regulation.

On Charlotte’s final possession of overtime, Butler swatted Walker’s shot, then leaped up to grab the ball and toss it over his head to save it from going out of bounds.

“I stayed in the game,” Butler said. “Guys are going to score the ball and if they’re feeling it, they’re going to score it at a high rate. My job is to make everything tough for him. I think I did that on a lot of plays. Let up on a couple, don’t get me wrong. But in the end, got a piece of the ball. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw [Wilson Chandler] right there. Throw the ball back to him, take off the other way.”

The Sixers called timeout, and everyone knew who was getting the ball. After Butler’s miss at the end of the fourth, JJ Redick approached Butler before the final play of overtime.

“He was kind of in his own little world,” Redick said, “and I just said, ‘I bet you won’t call game.’ He said, ‘Huh?’ I said, ‘I bet you won’t call game.’ And he said, ‘Bet.’ So we had a fun little moment after he hit that shot.”

While Butler does erase many of the Sixers’ previous weaknesses, he doesn’t solve everything. The Sixers continue to blow sizable leads — Saturday night was the third straight game they’ve squandered a lead of at least 16 points. And the bench still looks like it could use another piece or two. 

Butler is the kind of player who can make those concerns feel irrelevant. At the end of overtime, all that mattered was the Sixers could give the ball to Butler and let him do what he does. 

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Sixers 122, Hornets 119 (OT): Jimmy Butler nails game-winner to give Sixers a crazy win

Sixers 122, Hornets 119 (OT): Jimmy Butler nails game-winner to give Sixers a crazy win

BOX SCORE

The Sixers wanted a player who could create his own offense in crunch time.

Jimmy Butler showed on Saturday night in Charlotte he is very much that player.

Butler’s contested three-pointer with 0.3 seconds remaining in overtime gave the Sixers a 122-119 win over the Hornets. Brett Brown cleared out for Butler and let him go to work after his new star missed an open mid-range jumper for the win at the end of regulation. 

Butler made a great defensive play the possession before his game-winner, blocking Kemba Walker and making an acrobatic play to keep the ball inbounds.

Somehow, some way, the Sixers survived a career-high 60 points from Walker.

• It doesn't matter that Butler only shot 4 for 11 from the floor. Regardless of what's happened earlier in the game, you can tell him, "Get me a shot" and he will deliver when it matters. It's a quality the Sixers have been missing, and it's a quality he clearly possesses. 

• To say that no lead is safe with the Sixers is only a slight exaggeration. They led by as many as 17 points in the second quarter but finished the second quarter poorly and didn’t start the third well either. Saturday night was the third straight game they squandered a lead of at least 16 points. The Sixers also blew leads of 10 points with under four minutes left in the fourth quarter and five points with under two minutes remaining in overtime. Big leads dwindle all the time in the NBA, and the excuse of playing the second game of a back-to-back on the road is valid, but the larger pattern of allowing opponents back into games is a problem. 

• Brett Brown said after Friday’s win that Ben Simmons faces the “biggest adjustment” playing with Jimmy Butler (see story). Whereas Simmons tended toward deferring to his teammates in his first two games with Butler, in Charlotte he found the right balance between borderline reckless drives to the rim and intelligent, classic point guard facilitation. 

There was also another beautiful example of Simmons already being on the same wavelength as Butler.

And a reminder that Simmons is a pretty special athlete.

Simmons posted a season-high 23 points, with 11 rebounds and nine assists. He made 9 of 11 free throws. 

• Walker can score against any player in the NBA, and that includes Butler. The Sixers held Walker to 33.3 percent shooting in their first two matchups against Charlotte, but it was only a matter of time before Walker had a big night against the Sixers. Walker is just too quick, too crafty, and simply too good to stop.

At a certain point, though, you wonder why the Sixers didn’t start sending immediate double teams at Walker or trapping him on pick-and-rolls to make his job more difficult. 

• For the second straight night, the Sixers’ offense started out hot. After scoring 38 points on 13 of 15 shooting in the first quarter Friday vs. the Jazz, the Sixers put up 42 in Charlotte.

Embiid had 18 of those points, starting off 7 for 8 from the floor and scoring at all three levels. Unsurprisingly, Cody Zeller proved to be a much easier matchup than Rudy Gobert. 

• Brett Brown has, for the most part, been very consistent with his first-half rotations — Embiid always plays the first five or so minutes before being taken out. In each of his first three games, Butler has played approximately the first eight minutes of the game and the last eight minutes of the half. 

Embiid told reporters after Wednesday’s loss to the Magic that he was “pissed” about being subbed out after five minutes despite hitting three early three-point shots. There is again an argument to be made that Brown should have diverted from his typical plan against the Hornets and stuck with Embiid, given the big man’s great opening stint.

At this stage of the season, however, there’s no reason to overextend Embiid early in games. After years of having to worry about minutes restrictions, Embiid has played more minutes than any player in the NBA. Even if a couple more minutes for Embiid in the first half of a game might help the Sixers on occasion, it’s just not worth it in November. 

• Speaking of minutes restrictions — With the Sixers on the second night of a back-to-back, Wilson Chandler was limited to 12 minutes, all in the second half. Mike Muscala started in his place. 

While Muscala only had six points, this was one of his better defensive games of the season. He acquitted himself reasonably well when switched onto the Hornets’ guards. 

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