Butler Comes Up Big in Sixers’ OT Win Over Charlotte, Reminiscent of Sixers’ Legacy

The Sixers had their 2nd overtime game against the Charlotte Hornets so far this season, the last being only 8 days prior, both of which they won. Absolutely crucial in the Sixers win for Saturday night’s game, in which Hornets guard Kemba Walker dropped a 60-bomb, was Jimmy Butler’s clutch physical plays late in the game.

Butler scored 9 of his 15 points in the 4th quarter and overtime, and had two absurdly athletic defensive plays to contain Kemba, one of which being a crazy no look chuck behind his head to keep the ball in bounds which was caught by Wilson Chandler to take the ball down in transition.

It’s been long documented that the Sixers need to keep the energy up late into games. The Sixers have played more games than any other team thus far except for the Warriors, whom they are tied with at 18, and Embiid is playing more minutes than nearly anyone with the Sixers lacking depth at center. Adding Jimmy Butler increases the energy and takes a load off of Simmons in playmaking and makes covering Simmons and the Big Fella even more complicated by adding another athletic player who can handle and plays well off-ball, in addition to his very respectable and physical defensive prowess. Butler’s late game takeover feels very reminiscent of the Iverson era, in which he just seemed to decide this game was his for the taking and playing hard to make it happen.

The legacy of the modern Sixers is built on physical and hard-working players, and I believe that’s what makes this “Big 3” so very Philly. The Barkley and Iverson years instilled an aggressive, dedicated, trash-talking, physical and punishing atmosphere in the team, and after the Bad Years of the early Process, it’s extremely refreshing to see that come back in its own way with each of these 3 generational talents. Simmons is a silent but hard-working presence with an uncanny feel for the game. Embiid would play all 48 minutes of all 82 games if he could, as he’s just that much of a competitor and he strives to improve in any way he can (like Google searching white people shooting 3’s). Finally there’s Butler. He embodies “killer instinct.” He puts his whole body into his defense, and he has the mental fortitude to enter crunch time and say to himself  “We’re winning this game no matter what it takes. We are winning this game” and just completely take over when it matters most.

The gritty, tough Sixers are finally back, and boy is it going to be a fun watch.

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Down the Stretch: How the Addition of Jimmy Butler Can Improve the Sixers’ Offense Late in the Game

The Sixers have had trouble maintaining the leads that they so often build towards the end of the first half and early second half, especially in times when there’s secondary rotations being run before crunch time. For a team with aspirations for to appear Eastern Conference Finals, you need to hold on to every lead you can build. With defensive powerhouses like Boston and Toronto, or high-volume fast-paced scorers like Milwaukee in their way, you never know when you might stumble upon a 3rd quarter scoring drought. So what can the Sixers do to establish more consistency in their scoring down the stretch, and with bench guys rotating in more frequently.

The Sixers are 26th out of 30 teams in 4th quarter scoring, despite having multiple players in the Top 25 average PPG in the league (Embiid at number 3 notably, behind only Steph Curry and Lebron James). While the second player in that ranking is a new addition, the raw scoring potential is there for the Sixers. As I mentioned in my Jimmy Butler debut blog, Butler is among the highest in the league for 4th quarter scoring, at number 3 averaging 8.1 points, tying with number 2 Lou Williams and a measly .1 behind number 1, Lebron James. In theory, Butler should be a nice shot in the arm for the Sixers, adding a new primary playmaker in lineups that don’t include Ben Simmons as the game drags on. How might that happen though?

Butler in theory will fill a similar role in theory as Robert Covington, as an elite perimeter defender and option 1B on offense in the starting 5. However, Butler has a unique ability to create off the dribble, handle the ball, and initiate offense in a way that Covington wasn’t able to. Now, adding a new playmaker in place of a catch and shoot 2-guard adds some complexity to this lineup. I see the addition of Butler as an opportunity for Simmons to learn to play off-ball a little bit more, since Butler is a bigger threat in a half-court offense despite Simmons proficiency in playmaking and engaging others in the plays. Or better yet, add some raw scoring potential and playmaking in lineups when Simmons is out. Both of these scenarios add a lot of flexibility to lineups as players like Muscala, Korkmaz, and Fultz come in and reduce the pure creation and defensive ability of the lineup deep into the games.

To me, Brett Brown needs to take into account that Jimmy Butler is now on this team, and he needs to lean into that. Early as it was, the rotations in the debut were heavy on Simmons and Butler together on the court. Maybe, in a sort of Harden/Paul-esque way, they stagger minutes a little bit more and spread out the depth a bit, rather than riding super high highs and trying to survive super low lows. Maybe, Simmons plays some minutes as a small-ball 5 with Jimmy taking the ball from the top of the key, since Simmons is less of a threat from the arc, and is capable of cutting and taking lobs, or receiving a pass in the corner and driving and kicking to players like Shamet, Kormaz, or a wide open Muscala.

This team has a ton to figure out, especially as they consider some trades to add shooting depth before the deadline. But most importantly, the need to spread the scoring consistency through 4 quarters, 3-point threats or not.

Quick Reactions: Jimmy Butler’s Debut

In the 76ers’ 111-105 loss to the Orlando Magic Wednesday night, there was some obvious shortcomings of introducing a new primary ball-handler and big time star into your starting 5. Here are some of my quick takeaways from watching Jimmy Butler’s first game as a Sixer:

Pros: Between the transcendent passing of point guard Ben Simmons and smooth cuts of most of his prime targets, one of the Sixers’ greatest strengths is their ability to meaningfully move the ball in order to shake up a defense. Jimmy Butler seemed to fit into this aspect of Sixer basketball pretty smoothly. One play in particular had Jimmy pump-fake on a corner 3, to quickly dish it out to Muscala at the top of the key for a clean 3-point shot. Integrating players like Muscala, Chandler, and Shamet is going to be key for the Sixers to get value out of some of the guys coming off the bench, and there were plenty of plays that gave reason for optimism in that regard from Jimmy and the gang tonight.

Cons: The two problems that have plagued the Sixers in close games down the stretch this year have been a high turnover rate and low scoring in the late 3rd/early 4th quarter. The turnover rate is a logical consequence of moving the ball a lot. The more the ball changes hands, the more likely there is to be a minor error that can cause the ball to jar loose, or that a swift defensive hand can intercept. On top of Embiid’s often shaky handle (to his credit he’s improved significantly since the start of the season) the Sixers have plenty to brush up on in terms of execution, especially before playoff time, where elite defenses like Boston and Toronto might be particularly well-equipped to exploit sloppy movement.

The late scoring droughts, in my opinion, seems to be a symbol of how vulnerable the Sixers’ bench can be defensively, and depending on the lineup, how inept they can be offensively. Jimmy Butler leads the league in average 4th quarter scoring, so in theory he should help balance out some of the rotations and keep the drive going late into the game. It’s also not surprising, however, to consider that this will take some time to figure out in his new system: one where he isn’t playing nearly 40 minutes a night on back to backs, and has a different role in initiating offense. The Sixers let up 21 unanswered points from Orlando in the 3rd, a momentum switch they never quite recovered from.

The good news is, both of these problems should get better in time, and as Jimmy Butler settles into his role on the squad and as the rest of the players adjust accordingly.

(photo: NBA.com)

#Bum: The Beautiful Competitive Psychology of Joel Embiid’s Trash-talk

One of the most defining features of the Sixers’ star big-man Joel Embiid is his affinity for talking trash and getting into his opponents’ heads. This is well-documented, as he frequently takes to Twitter in order to make it happen post game. As funny and clever as he is, it’s worth investigating this a bit more from a psychological and competitive standpoint.

In behavioral psychology, there are certain ways in which you can directly manipulate the likelihood of a certain behavior occurring: punishments and reinforcements. I’m not going to speak too much about those, as I feel most people have a solid understanding about them already. Instead, I’m going to give a brief overview of Embiid’s mind-games and the consequences they can have in games.**

Let’s say, for example, that Embiid unleashes a monster dunk on a player who we’ll call Andre Bummond. After said emphatic jam, JoJo says to Bummond that he’s quote “Wack, and can’t guard [Embiid] without fouling.” If Bummond isn’t able to shake this off, one of two things can happen.

Either he will get frustrated, and make more aggressive decisions without thinking about it, or he will second-guess himself and hesitate before making a decision. The important thing to note is that both of these outcomes are favorable for Embiid in different ways.

In the frustration outcome, the player is much more likely to get more physical and overextend themselves, resulting in a foul (which for some players is the only option anyway). In this scenario, it gives Embiid, an approximate 80% free throw shooter, two easy attempts at the line, assuming he doesn’t go on to make the basket after the foul. No contact, no problem.

The second scenario, in which Bummond starts to question himself, is much more psychologically interesting. If Bummond really takes Embiid’s words to heart, he starts to think introspectively about whether his gut is making the right snap judgments, seeing as the last time he trusted his gut and challenged Embiid at the rim, he got some Cameroonian nuts in his face, and some harsh words in his ear. This hesitation, and questioning of his own decisions, leads him to rely on safer, more reliable options, and to arrive at this decision slower. This, of course, leads to much less resistance for Embiid on his way to the rim, or in the low post. Safer, reliable options don’t work against the Big Fella, especially if you don’t react quick enough.

While a lot of this is hypothetical, there are very real, tangible consequences to Embiid talking trash, on the court or off. Maybe players see his tweets and check in with something to prove, making them play reckless like fouling or turning the ball over. Or, maybe they make a business decision and stay out of his way when he gets the ball inside. Either way, Embiid’s ability to use both his physicality and mental toughness to exert himself on others is little short of competitive genius.

**(Author’s Note: I’ve included two videos. One shows Embiid frustrating Donovan Mitchell to the point of committing a moronic technical foul, resulting in shots from the line. The second one is a fantastic video by Core-A Gaming, about the usefulness of mind games and taunting in a competitive setting in video games, and goes much more in depth about different forms of conditioning and reinforcement strategies, for those uninformed.)