Tonight in Brooklyn, the Philadelphia 76ers were bailed out by a phenomenal performance by Jimmy Butler, who scored 18 of his 34 points including the game-winning 3 pointer with less than half a second remaining. The Sixers were down by 15 for a majority of the game, lacking energy particularly on the defensive end, but managed to turn it on in the final five minutes to pull out a much needed victory.
After a sloppy performance against the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers, the Sixers looked to flip the script at the Barclays Center against the Brooklyn Nets. Against the Cavs, the Sixers were not themselves. They came out of the gate flat, falling behind 22-8 early, and never finding their rhythm.
Returning to Brooklyn for the first time since their embarrassing 122-97 loss earlier this month where the Nets took an incredible 40 more shots than the Sixers did, the squad looked to come out aggressive, attacking the rim and getting back to their normal first quarter dominance. The team leads the league in first quarter scoring this season, but as of late their energy has been lacking.
Early in Brooklyn, the team lacked energy once again. Sloppy passing and poor shot selection caused coach Brett Brown to go to a smaller lineup, with Ben Simmons as the center and TJ McConnell handling the ball. This look allowed the team to use Simmons primarily as a screener, and freed up the offense for Jimmy Butler to operate as the go-to scorer.
Unfortunately, it resulted in some difficulties defensively, with the Nets pouring in shot after shot, bringing them to an 18-22 lead before Brown opted to bring Joel Embiid back in to shore up the defense.
Embiid, who only took 8 shots last time in Brooklyn, looked aggressive, but his shot was not falling early, and the rest of the team followed suit, shooting just 39% from the field. Fortunately, Embiid’s ability to get to the line kept the Sixers in the game, and despite an awful quarter, they trailed by just seven, 32-25.
Unfortunately, nothing changed in the second quarter, with the Nets beginning the quarter on a 7-0 run. The Sixers allowed four offensive rebounds within the first three minutes of the quarter, forcing Brett Brown to call a timeout in an effort to stop the bleeding. The Sixers defense offered no resistance whatsoever, allowing D’Angleo Russell to pass his scoring average (16.8) midway through the second quarter.
Embiid continued to carry the load for the offense; not much else was working for the Sixers with the defensive energy lacking significantly. While the Nets continued their hot shooting, the Sixers’ field goal percentage dipped below 35%, and the Brooklyn lead began to grow steadily.
This first half revealed what has been bubbling underneath for weeks for this Sixers team. After allowing 60 points to Kemba Walker, 30 to Wayne Ellington, and 37 to Devin Booker in the last 5 games, it is clear that the team is lacking several wing defenders. They struggle mightily against guards who are able to get even a step of penetration, and this showed tonight with Spencer Dinwiddie and D’Angelo Russell combining for 32 points on 18 shots in the first half.
Unfortunately, the open roster spot left over from the Jimmy Butler trade, as well as Markelle Fultz’ inability to stay on the floor have begun to hurt the Sixers tremendously. Their depth is significantly lacking, and when TJ McConnell is your best defensive option off the bench, teams are going to take advantage of this deficiency and switch on to these subpar defenders regularly.
Going into the break, the Sixers trailed by 54-68, letting an inferior Nets team take advantage of their low energy, and even lower shooting percentage, shooting 37% from the field and 24% from 3 in the first half. This game seemed like a continuation of Friday night against the Cavaliers with zero energy on the defensive end and shots simply not falling.
The second half was more of the same, with Russell continuing his scoring spree. Embiid continued to score steadily, but the rest of the team did not follow suit, allowing the Nets’ strong offense to bury them under a 15 point cushion – other than a brief moment in the final few minutes of the third, when a couple well timed Landry Shamet three pointers brought them within nine.
The second half was a much more competitive contest, but the Nets’ hot shooting allowed them to maintain a solid lead. Russell and Dinwiddie continued their dominance, finishing the game with 69 points on just 43 shots. The Nets built a healthy 102-89 lead heading into the fourth quarter and seemed to be home free, but Jimmy Butler had other ideas.
In the fourth quarter, Butler took over the offense. He handled the ball more often than not, and suddenly the Sixers offense had life.
Some early fouls had the Nets in the penalty with five minutes remaining, and the Sixers down just eight. Butler was instrumental in whittling down the Brooklyn lead, adding some much needed defensive pressure and taking initiative to score the ball at will. Running the offense through Butler, the Sixers looked as cohesive as they have all season, with the Nets needing to account for his ability as a three level scorer, allowing shots to open up for Joel Embiid and JJ Redick.
Finally, the shots started to fall, and the Sixers took the lead on a JJ Redick 3 pointer, traded baskets with the Nets until Jimmy hit the game winning three pointer with just 0.4 seconds left.
This was an important victory for a Sixers team who had been playing down to their competition level, and did during this game until the second half of the fourth quarter. Finally, the sense of urgency that the team seemed to be missing for the last several games seemed to resurface.
Going forward, the team needs to make a concerted effort to run the offense through Jimmy Butler. There’s a good reason that the Sixers traded away Dario Saric and Robert Covington, two solid rotation players on team friendly contracts, for just one season of Jimmy Butler. He elevates the team’s potential to new heights; the Sixers are championship contenders when they run the offense through Jimmy Butler.
Now, the team is still a few pieces away, but recall that the much discussed Ilyasova & Belinelli pairing was added after the trade deadline last season as buyouts. While the Sixers have some dire needs, they have plenty of time to fill them, and a win like tonight’s shows what this team is capable of.