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May 06, 2019

Sixers got little from stars outside of Jimmy Butler in Game 4 vs. Toronto Raptors

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Today's game: A brutal loss to the Toronto Raptors on Cinco de Mayo. 

Jimmy Butler was the only star who brought it at both ends

There have been many reasons to question Butler's locker room demeanor in the past, the infamous Philadelphia film session aside. But anyone who can look at what he has done in the playoffs and see anything but a leader by example is kidding themselves.

On Sunday, Butler was excellent once again for the Sixers. He almost singlehandedly kept them in the game early when the rest of his teammates were still trying to shake the cobwebs out, he powered them through the middle periods, and he did all the dirty work necessary to keep them within striking distance. His offensive rebounding has seriously been one of the highlights of this playoff run — there are times when he just wants that ball more than anybody else on the floor, and he is not shy about going up to get it.

The version of Butler that attempts more threes is just as dangerous as you were led to believe before he arrived in Philly. Butler got an assist from the glass on a three in the fourth quarter on Sunday, but the important thing was the seven attempts he got up from deep. Toronto has had to close hard on him all series, and it has reinvigorated him as a driver, creating the separation he needs to score in the paint and bait the Raptors into fouls when he gets by the first line of defense.

Let those around him tell the story, and they will also tell you he has stepped up his contributions as a vocal presence in Philadelphia's locker room.

"I have seen him grow from a leadership standpoint in noticeable ways. it's reflected with his performance on the court, it's reflected in what goes on in the locker room," Brett Brown said Sunday. "You see him on a bench when he's not playing. You can point to multiple examples to say 'that is a leader.' He's been able to back that up with some strong court performances."

Game after game, he has shown up and done whatever is necessary to put the Sixers on a path toward winning.

Brief shout outs to James Ennis and JJ Redick

Don't have a bad word to say about either of these guys in Game 4. 

Redick has a reputation among some fans for missing the shots that matter, but he drilled at least two or three looks to kill Toronto runs on Sunday, and he has been miles better as a defender this postseason than he was last year. The Raptors have not been able to pick on him much, with Redick fighting to avoid getting switched off of Danny Green as much as possible, and it has gone a long way toward getting stops as a team.

Ennis' versatility has been crucial since the playoffs began, and he continues to do the little things well the deeper they get. If he continues to knock down open threes, draw charges, and show the ability to take on different assignments on defense, I would not be surprised if they try to keep him beyond this season.

Playing through a weary Joel Embiid in crunch time

I didn't have a problem with letting Embiid play through an illness yesterday, as some have railed against over the house since Game 4 ended. He is your franchise player, and without him on the floor yesterday, the Sixers were an absolute dumpster fire on both ends of the floor. Embiid has his issues, but he continued to bring it on defense and make Toronto work hard for what they got.

There was no real justification, however, for trying to run everything through him in crunch time. Yes, he's your franchise player and yes, that is the guy who you want to carry you down the stretch of a lot of games, but there has to be an understanding of the situation in this instance. Embiid was sneezing up a storm during a film session pregame and in visible discomfort throughout Sunday's game, which the head coach and players alike noted after the game.

"It's a virus," Brown said afterward, "and all during pregame film you can hear him sneezing and sneezing and sneezing and you try to ignore it and just coach through it and show the players the pregame tape but I'd be lying if I were to tell you it wasn't completely on my mind as I'm talking to the team showing them tape, listening and seeing him."

That didn't stop the Sixers from turning to him over and over again with the game hanging in the balance. In the final quarter, he missed both of his attempts from the field, turned the ball over twice, missed three of his six free-throw attempts, and was obviously gassed. That's not the time to keep giving him the ball.

I'm not usually the guy who sits here and just screams, "Run more Butler pick-and-rolls!" at every problem, but this was a night where that would have been a completely justifiable decision. Butler has his own struggles in the final frame with Kawhi Leonard bothering him, but if you're asking me to choose between a healthy Butler who was playing well and a visibly exhausted Embiid, it's not close. 

Tobias Harris' barrage of missed threes 

There is nothing to really analyze about the shots Tobias Harris missed on Sunday afternoon. They are shots you would expect him to make in his sleep if you are purely looking at his numbers and reputation from before he arrived in Philadelphia. He owned his tough night at the office in front of his locker after Game 4.

"I take ownership of it, I missed too many shots that could have helped us win this game," Harris said. "Couple of those threes go down, we're probably in here with a different feeling and a different vibe."

All shooters are prone to cold streaks and down games, and Harris is no exception to that rule. If there is a concern about him the rest of the playoffs and heading into the future, it would be that he has not been the shooter he proved to be at previous stops since joining the Sixers. 

Harris 2018-19 Three-point shooting 
 Pre-trade112/258 (43.4 percent)
 Post-trade (RS and playoffs)61/182 (33.5 percent)

The playoff numbers on their own are too noisy to know what to make of in such a small window. Before Harris' 2/13 effort from deep on Sunday, his postseason shooting numbers were actually better than his numbers with the Clippers this season, with Harris connecting on over 44 percent of his attempts from deep. It's the previous months of slumping that give you pause heading into contract negotiations.

Harris has proven to be an important weapon in Philly's playoff attack, and when he gets going the Sixers are often impossible to stop. His help defense has been better in the playoffs, and even though Kawhi Leonard has hit some tough shots over all of the Sixers, I think Harris has done as well as you could hope to hold up in isolation.

The trade for Harris was made to get production right now, or you wouldn't have paid a premium to bring him in during a contract year. They need him to respond with a big Game 5.

Ben Simmons' aversion to the free-throw line

The only time we've seen Simmons try to put any fear into an opponent as a shooter was when he wanted to make a point in a meaningless blowout against the Lakers in February, responding to relentless sagging from LeBron James. Okay, old news, we've discussed the jumper a million times, it's a problem that is not going away anytime soon.

If you're going to play the game as if shots don't exist beyond eight feet, you damn well better make that up somewhere else on offense. Simmons has not done that, and what's worse is he is actively avoiding situations where he should be able to score, wasting the size and athleticism that should make him a menace around the rim.

This is a symptom of a greater problem for Simmons in this series:

There is no thought from Simmons to go up and score at the rim on this play despite only having Kyle Lowry to beat. Instead, the guy who many laud for his basketball IQ decides to pass the ball to a guy who has Serge Ibaka waiting behind him to block his shot into next week. Shockingly, Ibaka did exactly that when Simmons refused to take this shot himself.

In four games, Simmons has attempted just three free throws against Toronto, making none of them. That should be impossible for a player who is dead set on living in the paint. Simmons has to be willing and able to manufacture points in some way.

Simmons has to be painfully aware of this. There were light boos and groans when he passed up a shot attempt in the lane in the third quarter to pass back into traffic on the perimeter. And the guys he suits up with have stressed to him that they are not going anywhere if he doesn't take the game at his opponent.

"I tell him every time down the floor to attack. Every single time," Butler said on Sunday evening. "I'm cool with, if coach calls a play and you feel like you've got the mismatch, by all means attack. Coach will be like 'why did you do it?' and I promise I will say that I told him to do it. I want him to be aggressive like I told Joel to be aggressive. Attack. We're not gonna win without you guys." 

"You have to be ready to attack at any point in time. Damn sure in transition. When he has the ball in transition, don't pass the ball. Attack every single time. That's how we're gonna win this game."

Simmons can shrug off outside criticism and observations as much as he wants, and he often does. He brushed off questions about his shot selection on Sunday, calling it "okay" and saying the only thing he would have liked to have done differently is, "make shots."

If that's how he wants to respond to a loss, that is his right. The game speaks the loudest.

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