Still alive, the Sixers are.
That’s what Yoda would say after your team, your town used a spirited game four effort to avoid the sweep and send the series back to Boston.
The catalyst for the turnaround was Brett Brown’s decision to elevate a fan-favorite, Process-era Sixer to the starting lineup at the expense of another fan-favorite, Process-era Sixer. T.J. McConnell got the news around 2 p.m. Monday afternoon from assistant coach Lloyd Pierce, who told him he’d be playing alongside Ben Simmons while Robert Covington went to the bench.
In a way, it was a pseudo-continuation of the third quarter success the team experienced in game two, a smart adjustment that never came to full fruition after Brown took McConnell off the floor in the fourth quarter to re-insert an ineffective Simmons.
Whether or not the head coach made a mistake in Boston is something we can write down as a footnote when this series is over, but he got it right on Monday night, throwing a two-way curveball at Boston to keep his team afloat. It was a tweak he says was made with more consideration towards the defensive side of the floor.
“When you started assessing, like where are the problems, there are some problems matchup wise when we start the game and you’re always wondering who has (Terry) Rozier, as an example. And I think Brad (Stevens) and the Celtics do a good job of finding the mismatch and punishing that. So it was borne out of a defensive thing as much as anything. Certainly a spirit thing, as I’ve said. But the decision would have happened probably 24 hours after we lost game three.”
That was the key for me. We heard every corny and generic buzz word in the post game presser, stuff like “energy” and “heart” and “hustle” and whatever, but from an Xs and Os standpoint, McConnell really just does a nice job on Rozier and solves matchup issues from the jump.
The Celtics point guard had his worst game of the series, going 4-11 from the field and 1-6 for three for 11 points in 39 minutes. McConnell’s ability to pester him on the perimeter and chase and pressure really made the entirety of Boston’s offense function at a lower gear for much of the evening. McConnell also guarded Jayson Tatum for a large chunk of possessions, and the outstanding rookie wing only got 5 of his 20 against the Sixers’ point guard, according to NBA matchup data:
Tatum finished 2-4 against McConnell and Rozier 0-3, with the pair attempting just 7 of their 27 shots when guarded by T.J.
That’s the defensive spark.
Offensively, he’s just a different player than Ben Simmons. Most point guards are, since they’re not 6’10”. T.J.’s ability to squirt around the court, “mash” underneath the rim, create chaos and open up the floor in different ways forced Boston out of their “wall off Ben and dare him to shoot” approach that had worked so well in games one through three.
Here you’ve just got a high dribble hand-off coming out of pistol action, an elbow screen from Joel Embiid, and a pull-up 12-footer:
Simmons isn’t shooting that. He’s likely running into Marcus Smart on the non-switch, picking up his dribble, and kicking the ball back out.
McConnell had a career-high 19 points, seven rebounds and five assists in his first career playoff start. Most importantly, put coughed up the ball a whopping total of zero times while finishing with the third best defensive rating on the team.
Of course this just serves to highlight the question I mentioned above – is it too little, too late? Did Brett Brown do himself a disservice by taking McConnell out of game two and putting Simmons back in? It would appear so, but it is what it is at this point. T.J. will start again Wednesday and we’ll see how Brad Stevens adjusts.
Finding the game
Robert Covington’s first action off the bench was to miss two three pointers and commit two fouls, much to the distaste of the home crowd, who audibly groaned. Covington picked up a third foul later and went back to bench with 0 points.
He finished 1-7 on the evening, an “improvement” over his 0-8 game three effort, but drew praise from Brown for his 3 assists, 5 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 block, and he did have a nice third-quarter stretch that helped the Sixers push the lead to double digits.
“I thought he was very good in areas that others might not pay attention to,” Brown said.
That’s always been the story with Covington, and I’ve tried to highlight that this season, his auxiliary contributions, but the fact of the matter is that he’s overall been incredibly poor in this series. He’s getting beat off the dribble and can’t shoot, and it’s no coincidence that the Sixers had their best game of the series with Covington playing fewer than 20 minutes for the first time this postseason.
More Brett on RoCo:
“He has been down. He’s been steady defensively, but being a little bit down offensively, that is true. I feel like the game, you know, sort of finds him as opposed to him finding the game. If you see me walking around on the sidelines with my call sheet, I have one play for Robert. And I really don’t go out of my way to call a play for Robert. He’s the recipient of a lot of other action. I think just the notion that that isn’t really what we need, we need you to guard, we need you to run your lane…
“When it becomes a half court game it’s clear that they’re trying to play his stomach, they’re trying to bend him over. It’s clear they’re trying to force him to become a dribbler. And they’re good. They’re athletic. Somewhere, with all of that, I think I can help him refocus offensively.”
That would be helpful, because he’s contributing very little otherwise right now.
Finding your form
One guy who got it together last night was Dario Saric, who snapped out of a rough five-game stretch to put up a team-high 25 points in the win.
And he did it in gritty and typical Dario fashion, too, going up for offensive rebounds and getting stuff in the paint after a couple of early three point attempts didn’t go down (he started 0-4). I often look up at the scoreboard and say, “shit.. he’s got 20 points? when did that happen?” That’s the Saric we’ve seen all year long, the sort of two-way grinder who hits the glass and scraps and battles and just wins the war of attrition.
Brown pointed out that there’s a pride factor to Dario’s game:
“He made some long twos. I thought there was a toughness that wasn’t dissimilar from T.J. He was 9-17, 8 rebounds, 4 assists. Just solid. There are lots of similar things I just declared about T.J. that you would equally say about Dario. Those types of people that care for their teammates, they’re proud to be a Philadelphia 76er – it means something. They’re priceless. Those guys tonight I think really showed that type of spirit.”
Embiid pointed out that the Sixers felt like they had a mismatch when Tatum would guard Saric, and you saw them try to take advantage of it on plays like this:
That’s just one of the bazillion screen looks the Sixers run out of their horns set, this time a little 5/4 pick to curl Dario around Embiid for an elbow jumper over Horford.
I don’t know if I like the Sixers’ chances in Boston, but if Saric plays the way he did in game four, that’s one hell of a boost.
Better from Ben
I thought Simmons was decent last night. 19/13/5 is nothing to sneeze at in the postseason. And even though he only hit 6 field goals, he tried 15 total, which is perfect. That’s where he should be every night, in that 14-16 range.
He was more aggressive getting to the rim, and I think he was better at attacking mismatches and trying to punish those defensive switches.
Case in point, another one of those loose back screens that got Horford off of him on the perimeter:
It’s not much of a screen since Redick falls over, but you get the point. And yeah, Simmons loses the ball initially and then fluffs the layup attempt, but that’s a strong move to the rim against a smaller guy. He wasn’t always seeing that in game three.
I feel like any other film dive with Simmons and McConnell is better reserved for a sidebar story, so I maybe I can look more at the Ben/TJ ‘playing together’ dynamic later today.
We gotta get Scott Foster and Tony Brothers out of the playoffs.
— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) May 7, 2018
The Sixers are very aware that Scott Foster and Tony Brothers are in the building.
— Mook Box Hero (@SamSheehan) May 7, 2018
Keys for game 5
– Don't let Aron Baynes shoot 7 threes
– Don't play Greg Monroe when Embiid is on the floor
– Hope Scott Foster and Tony Brothers aren't reffing
— Tycho (Not mad that the Celtics lost) (@RealTKoBoston) May 8, 2018
Scott Foster and Tony Brothers tonight for Celtics/Sixers. Looks like this one is going 5 games.
— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) May 7, 2018
Here’s the stat: the Celtics have now lost 8 playoff games in a row with Tony Brothers officiating.
Maybe Adam Silver can find a way to get Tony B to the Boston Garden on Wednesday night.
- Free throw shooting: 20 for 26 for Philly, right around 76%, so a little better than the other night. JJ Redick missed a pair in the 2nd quarter.
- Brad Stevens felt like Boston turnovers (15) and Philly offensive rebounds (16) were the key to the game. To that point, the Sixers out-shot the Celtics by 94 attempts to just 75. That’s a monstrous swing in total possessions.
- I thought Covington’s third foul, the block on Baynes, was a super close call, but he got elbow before ball:
- Second quarter, a Sixers fan in the third row turned around and yelled at press row: “#12 (McConnell) IS BACK IN THE GAME. HE DESERVES TO BE IN THE GAME.” After every bucket, he would turn around, yell something at Sal Paolantonio, try to pump up the crowd, then turn around and high five his buddy. This guy might have been coked up, but he looked more like a brown bag/huffer/whippets type, in my opinion.
- The Sixers trapped and doubled on the perimeter early and often and were more aggressive in general.
- They entered the 4th quarter with just 3 turnovers and finished with just 8 in the game. The regular season low was 5.
- The Embiid/Rozier “fight” was a nothingburger, but Rozier did strike out at Embiid. The refs of course took the easy way out by giving double technicals. Embiid said afterward that Rozier “…tried to punch me twice. Too bad he’s too short and couldn’t get to my face.”