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November 23, 2019

Sixers' Josh Richardson stole the show in Jimmy Butler's return to Philadelphia

It is hard to upstage Jimmy Butler, in his return game to Philadelphia or anywhere else he happens to be playing basketball. He is loud, he is dominant on the floor, and he attracts attention wherever he goes, for better and for worse.

But unlike Butler, Josh Richardson did not arrive at his new team by choice. He was sent packing by the team that had drafted and developed him, considered expendable in Miami's chase for a star player. And while he would not own up to any extra excitement for Saturday's game relative to any other night, he played as if it meant everything to him.

"He was going to play regardless of how he felt," Ben Simmons said of Richardson, who had missed the last two games with soreness in his right hip. "He was dominant tonight, offensively and defensively."

It was Richardson's best game in Philadelphia to date by a substantial margin — 32 points on 11/15 shooting (including 6/7 from three), virtuoso work in the pick-and-roll, four assists, a steal, and the love of a crowd that has embraced his two-way play from the opening quarter he played here against the Boston Celtics.

Shooting explosions are going to come few and far between for Richardson, whose best descriptor beyond the arc may be "serviceable." Sometimes, it is just as simple as catching a heater at an opportune moment, and perhaps Richardson just so happened to have a great night at the best possible time.

But it didn't feel like an accident that it happened this specific Saturday night. Richardson spent a lot of time pregame saying hello to players and staffers from the Heat, still fond of many of the people he left behind. 

"It was a little weird to see a Heat jersey I wasn't wearing, but that's just one of those things you have to learn to overcome," Richardson said after the game. "That whole roster is full of good guys."

For every handshake and smile Richardson offered to his old buddies, he offered two punches to the gut. There he was, hitting an end-of-quarter three to push the lead to 20 points before halftime. There he was, still in the game in the fourth quarter, dropping jumper after jumper on Tyler Herro's head, dominating Miami in the very pick-and-roll sets they empowered him to run last season.

It almost felt cruel after Heat coach Erik Spoelstra spent much of his pregame session praising Richardson as one of their great developmental success stories. A Miami scout was enamored with Richardson as a freshman at Tennessee before he had received any kind of major playing time. He spent so much time tracking Richardson over his four seasons there, in fact, that Spoelstra joked he had a "man crush" on him.

Spoelstra, then, was probably less surprised than anyone that Richardson proceeded to unleash all the qualities the Heat treasure in their players (toughness, work ethic, and a defensive edge) back at his former team. 

Richardson was fairly soft spoken about his performance after the game, heaping praise onto the shoulders of Joel Embiid and Al Horford for freeing him up with picks to let him get rolling downhill. They were certainly involved in his night, but he deserves most of the credit for his shotmaking — this is just a case of a player finding a special zone and staying in it.

He has been an impactful contributor in Philadelphia even when his shots haven't dropped, and his intangibles are part of what made him so appealing to the Sixers to begin with. The Sixers have faced a healthy amount of adversity during this early stretch, with people on the outside challenging their offensive structure, their team composition, and (as always) their head coach for how disjointed they've looked at times.

But Richardson has some dog in him,. And perhaps the Sixers learned exactly how much was in him on Saturday night, as his edge even took people by surprise who spend every day with him.

"I learned something tonight," Brett Brown said of the impression Richardson left about how much the game meant to him. "It doesn't surprise me, but the level that he displayed stood out. He was very, very good both sides of the ball tonight." 

Benefitting from Embiid's post-ups

Though Richardson credited Embiid (and Horford) for his impact in the pick-and-roll specifically, his work in traffic was just as essential to getting Richardson and the whole team going.

The biggest downside of playing through Embiid in the post has been (and likely will continue to be) turnovers. It's a style of offense that has inherent disadvantages in today's NBA, but Embiid also isn't particularly great at navigating the doubles coming his way, which has held him back from hitting the elite offensive ceiling that is in reach for him.

That has changed over the last week or so, with Embiid punishing teams for leaving his guys alone on the perimeter. It's something Brett Brown says the coaching staff has hammered home, trying to simplify reads for Embiid by emphasizing floor spots other players need to be at when he's posting up.

"We have spent a lot of times on floor spots, we've cleaned some things up too, some of that's on me," Brown said. "I feel like he knows now his outlets when he wants to quarterback a gym, and he understands and we can help him, where are the double teams coming from? Your first option is to score, but in the event you're double-teamed, here it is."

"We found those spots quickly and made shots from those spots, which is always rewarding for him. He sees it immediately get rewarded, and I think we're doing a better job of doing that."

Plays like these have been turnovers for Embiid in the past, and instead, Richardson gets as clean a look as you could hope for at the rim on a night where he was already cooking:

Everyone tends to focus on the impact of turnovers on Philadelphia's offense, because, well, if you can't shoot the ball you can't score. Pretty simple stuff. But they are just as detrimental defensively because when teams are able to get out and push the pace, the Sixers lose the ability to leverage their size.

Embiid was not always rewarded with buckets when passing out of those doubles, but the important thing here for Philly is that the reads are coming quicker. When defenses are no longer able to creep up on him and get him out of sorts in the post, he will be unstoppable.

Building chemistry with the starting five

One last throwaway before we go — the lack of playing time together for the starting five has been almost amusing up to this point, an impossible string of misfortune and minor injuries and obstacles preventing them from playing together.

Richardson highlighted a small, but noteworthy moment from the game on Saturday night that won't be in anybody's highlight tape, but matters as much to the Sixers as anything else that happened.

"Me and Tobias had a little back and forth, not bad, but it was one of those things where I was screaming at him for the ball to get into a mismatch, but he didn't understand it," Richardson said. "Then we explained it, but it didn't escalate, we fist-bumped and kept it going, and I saw a few other instances like that. I think when you can go at your teammates like that and come out of it positively, I think that's a good step forward."

Iron sharpens iron, or so they say. The Sixers have to learn how to thrive in and embrace diversity, and only time together will do that.

In the interim, they are doing pretty okay.

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