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April 29, 2019

Instant observations: Jimmy Butler shows up as Sixers even series in Toronto

Sixers NBA

TORONTO — The Sixers owe Danny Green a thank you card for missing more open shots than he has probably missed in the rest of his career combined, but they will take a win on the road however they can get it. Philadelphia rode Jimmy Butler to a 94-89 win in Toronto on Monday night, taking homecourt advantage from the Raptors as they had back to Philly.

Here's what I saw in Monday night's game.

The Good

• Having Joel Embiid available was a good thing. That's a good place to start.

• The first major adjustment for Philadelphia early was on the defensive end, and it was a bit unconventional for a team that likes to let Embiid sit back in the paint and steer traffic toward him. Sticking Ben Simmons on Leonard is where everyone believed they would go after Game 1, but it was just as significant to move Embiid onto Pascal Siakam, distorting their approach to the game.

It makes a lot of sense on paper, because Marc Gasol is not the sort of guy you just dump the ball to in an effort to score at this stage of his career. By starting Tobias Harris on him, the Sixers put more disciplined defenders on Toronto's two best players, and it actually looked like they read the scouting report this time around. The Sixers hung on Siakam's right hip and tried to force him to go left, often to good results.

More importantly, it goaded the Raptors into going away from Kawhi Leonard, and when he did have the ball the Sixers did an excellent job of throwing bodies at him to make him reconsider his attack. It ended with a lot of offensive resets for Toronto, and shots from one of the guys on the floor who aren't one of the best two-way players on the planet.

Everyone who was pining for adjustments from Brett Brown coming out of Game 2 got a handful of them, and they helped right the ship for Philly.

• Let's hone in on the Simmons vs. Leonard matchup for a moment, because the adjustments Brown made elsewhere don't matter if the Sixers were playing soft defense on Leonard. Building off of his performance in Game 2, Simmons was absolutely locked in on the defensive end of the floor, using every tool in his arsenal to bother Toronto's best player.

The Sixers sent plenty of bodies into the paint to cloud Leonard's vision, but Simmons was the catalyst for everything, navigating through screens to get into his chest and discourage him from getting shots up. It helped avoid the early tidal wave that was the first half of Game 1, and forced shots into the hands of players like Serge Ibaka and Danny Green instead.

Forget the offensive concerns with Simmons for a second and understand that this is the second straight series where we've seen him prove capable of taking the opposing team's best player out of what he wants to do, and Leonard is a much better player than D'Angelo Russell. When you discuss Simmons' upside, leave the defensive part of the equation out at your own peril.

• Between games, I spent a lot of time writing about why the Sixers had to go away from Boban Marjanovic, but I never dreamed Greg Monroe would be the guy to take his place in the rotation. That's exactly what we got on Monday night, and Monroe was the most surprising difference maker the Sixers have had all season.

He was just quick enough to avoid getting beaten to spaces by Raptors players the way Boban had in Game 1, and Monroe's strength bothered the Raptors when they tried to attack him in isolation. Kyle Lowry was upset that he wasn't getting calls, but Monroe made it easy for the refs to officiate by standing straight up and down and just daring Lowry to beat his length. He couldn't do it.

• Also offering the Sixers good minutes off of the bench was James Ennis, who at this point is their clear cut best bench player. He is a reliably solid defender who can switch across matchups, which the Sixers desperately need, and when he can knock down open shots the whole world opens up for Philadelphia.

Ennis was able to give the Sixers extra minutes with Tobias Harris skirting around some early foul trouble in the first half. If the Sixers can buy Mike Scott enough time to recover and get back into the rotation, they may just have the bodies to win this series.

• Butler was a much different player in Game 2 after getting absolutely smoked on both ends on Saturday. While he wasn't a huge standout as a half court defender, he was a big part of Philadelphia stifling the transition attack that Toronto often rides to victory. He made at least two outstanding plays to snuff out the Raptors on the break in the first half, and they need him to come up big there with some of their other guys assigned to offensive rebounding duty.

You can often see what sort of Butler you're going to get within the first few minutes of the game, because he will come out and show a different sense of urgency regardless of who the offense is running through. He sustained that momentum throughout the game, pressing Toronto on loose balls and hunting his own missed shots to at least make them work to end a possession.

That aggression bleeds into how he plays on the other end, and Butler was at his absolute best as an attacker in Game 2. Instead of kicking to guys in the corners, he seized the game by the horns and went strong at the rim early. 

Then we saw some good old-fashioned shot-making, and the most willing shooting from Butler beyond the arc in quite some time, with Butler not shying away from the open looks that came his way in the offense. His shot selection has been puzzling at times, and sometimes all it really takes for him is to take the easy looks, because he has the catch-and-shoot ability to make teams pay.

The Sixers need aggressive Butler in this series, not the guy who rests on his laurels and defers all night. He was considerably better in Game 2, and was in many ways their driving force with Embiid sputtering all night.

The Bad

• The only reason Toronto was able to stay in the game during a bad first half will not surprise you — the Sixers did not take care of the basketball. Philadelphia coughed the ball up 12 times before halftime, with Embiid and Simmons leading the way on this front, producing seven between the two of them.

Simmons had a few opportunities to get a decent look at the basket before contorting his body to fire off-balance passes through traffic. That's still an issue that plagues him against the league's better defenses.

Trying to reestablish the team's ball movement in Game 2 was an admirable goal, but the Sixers still need their best players to try attack when the opportunities are there. Aggressive Simmons is the best version of Simmons, and he couldn't carry his game over from the other side of the court.

• Getting past Toronto with Embiid playing as he did on Monday is something of a minor miracle. He wasn't the dominant defender he usually is — in part because it was not what the scheme was asking him to be — and he was a non-factor on offense for basically the entire game.

There will be a game for him to be the Embiid the world has seen dominate teams all year. Even in a terrible game by his standards, he came up with two monster plays down the stretch, hitting Butler for a three on an unbelievable pass from the post and putting Gasol in the spin cycle with less than 30 seconds to go. The plays he made were minimal, but they were enough.

• The Sixers are going to need Tobias Harris to reemerge from the ether at some point in this series. Toronto is not doing anything special defending him, and a lot of the shots he's missing are shots he has worked on and made in game situations over and over again during his career.

One saving grace for Harris is that he has been better than usual as a passer through two games, so at the very least he hasn't been just been a black hole as he chucks up brick after brick. When you're trying to shoot your way out of a funk, it's easy to get tunnel vision, but at the least, I think he has avoided that problem.

(I also think he has been underrated on defense, but that's about it.)

• One thing I think merits watching as the series moves back to Philadelphia — do the Raptors begin to hunt JJ Redick on defense more? We saw them post up Danny Green against him a few times, but the Sixers are probably going to live with any offensive possession that ends with Green shooting turnarounds in the mid-post.

What they aren't going to be able to live with is Redick getting switched onto Siakam or Gasol, which happened a few times but not quite enough to hurt the Sixers. The Sixers have a tendency to over-help when they see Redick against a bigger or stronger guy, and they're going to have to strike a balance between giving him help and not getting beat by the extra pass when it comes.

The Ugly

• When you're arguing about who to activate or not activate on a bench that stinks out loud, I think it's a little hard to get too fired up. But there were a couple of discernible decisions Brett Brown made that are worth questioning.

No. 1: Activating Amir Johnson to protect against Embiid missing the game on Monday. Even if Embiid was going to miss the game, you would have had two true centers and a hybrid big (Jonah Bolden) to cover the position. That should be more than enough.

No. 2: Dropping Zhaire Smith to the inactive list as a product of the Johnson decision. Someone was going to have to drop to get that insurance, and I get that Brown doesn't want to trust a rookie against a battle-tested playoff team, but if you're telling me the other choices are Furkan Korkmaz and Jonathon Simmons, Smith is at least the second-best option in that group, if not the best.

• There was a stretch midway through the third quarter where the Sixers had no effing idea what they were trying to do with their lineups. Monroe picked up a limp, which was going to prompt Brown to bring Boban into the game, until Monroe waved him off, sent Boban back to the bench, only for Monroe to limp off the court shortly afterward.

The bigger issue once that was resolved was Brown deciding to go with a frontcourt of Boban and Jonah Bolden, which is not something I would have expected to see on a basketball court in 1999, let alone 2019. It was an absolute trainwreck in the brief time they shared the floor, but there's absolutely no reason it should have been necessary. Remember, this team activated Johnson at the cost of a wing, so it was Brown's own fault that they didn't have more flexibility and wing length to put around whatever big was on the floor.

I don't even know what to say about Johnson getting minutes in the fourth quarter with the game very much still there for the taking. Weird decisionmaking tonight.

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