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Cleveland Sets Example
In the aftermath of the Sixers’ 122-105 defeat in Cleveland, Brett Brown repeated a hunch he expressed several times in the hours leading up to Friday’s tip-off.
The Cavaliers were too good to stay down for too long, and that their talent level was such that a flip could be switched at any time to free them from a month-long funk.
Brown said the Sixers were approaching Cleveland with “respect, and caution” Friday, despite their hosts having endured a third straight defeat the night before, to a sub-.500 Chicago team, no less.
“They are in a down patch right now,” Brown said of the Cavaliers, which had been 6-10 in March. “They can blink, and they go back quickly to being the NBA champs.”
Title-winners in 2016, and with sights set on repeating again this June, the Cavs not only shifted into high gear Friday, they did so emphatically. Kyrie Irving got his squad started in what was a mostly back-and-forth first quarter, then LeBron James imposed his will to break the game open in the second frame. Throughout the night, Kevin Love, the Cavs’ other All-Star starter, sprinkled in valuable contributions.
From a collective standpoint, the heady individual efforts of Cleveland’s premiere players allowed the team itself to collectively recapture many of the elite-level qualities it had displayed last season, and for the better part of this year as well. As for some items that stood out…
On the heels of scoring 74 points in San Antonio and 93 points at Chicago in consecutive contests, the Cavs’ offense, rated third-best in the NBA (based on points scored per 100 possessions), exploded, churning out its highest single-game point total in almost two weeks.
More specifically, Cleveland on Friday was efficient from 3-point territory (13 for 29, 44.8%), where it ranks second in the league; attacked the basket – also a speciality – with great success (the Cavs generated 23 points on 23 drives to the basket Friday); and proved difficult to contain in isolation (no team in the league has generated more isolation points this season than the Cavaliers).
From a defensive standpoint, the latter area – isolation – might have been foremost on Brown’s mind heading into Friday’s tilt. Given the veteran weapons Cleveland spreads around the court, the concern was more than justified.
“In our league the holy grail is how do you have one offensive player that can bring two defensive players to them,” Brown said Friday. “As simplistic as that sounds, that is the holy grail, and it certainly is the holy grail in the playoffs.”
Over Brown’s 16 NBA seasons as either as an assistant or head coach, he’s learned that clubs can create this type of aforementioned dynamic in several ways. It can be accomplished at a post, as Brown’s San Antonio teams did with Tim Duncan, or via pick-and-roll sets, similarly to how the Spurs also used Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, or to what Houston Rockets are currently running with James Harden.
Scheming against Cleveland, Brown said, becomes that much more problematic “because they’re so dynamic in isolations.” That subplot bore itself out Friday in front of a sold-out crowd of 20,500-plus at Quicken Loans Arena.
“They really can make you shift and have to come over to help on your abundance of iso guys,” said Brown. “So, it’s can you guard your man? Can you keep the game in front of you? What sword are you prepared to fall on? If you’re going to lose, what’s it look like? It’s trying to avoid scrambles, trying to avoid rotations, it’s trying to guard your man, and that’s under the assumption that we all got back on defense to have a chance in half court. That historically has been how we played Cleveland.”
A tall order indeed, especially on a night on which the Cavaliers seemed determined to get back on track.
Combine the Cavs’ offensive prowess with a renewed intensity and focus on the defensive side of the floor (where Cleveland had been much maligned during its skid), and the end result was a complete, thorough, championship-grade performance.
Justin Anderson considered Cleveland’s example one worth striving towards.
“They know of all the teams in the NBA, we’re going to come every possession,” said the second-year forward. “I think they felt us. We tried to wear ‘em down, but they’ve been in a tough place.
“We knew we were going to get their best shot to try to take us out, and we wanted to do the same thing. It was actually a really good game for us to go out there experience that level of play at this time of year, because I think hopefully really soon we’ll be in that spot, and I can’t wait.”
Brown, Players Reflect on Efforts from Covington, Okafor
Before the Sixers took the floor Friday at the Q, the team provided the following medical updates on the status of Robert Covington, and Jahlil Okafor:
An MRI of Robert Covington’s right knee reveals slight tear of lateral meniscus. He will miss final 7 games of season.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) March 31, 2017
Jahlil Okafor still having right knee soreness – exacerbated by impact in game at OKC – will miss final 7 games of season.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) March 31, 2017
Shortly after the news was announced, Brett Brown addressed reporters.
“It’s just one layer to taking what you have and moving forward,” said Brown, whose Sixers, following Friday’s loss to Cleveland, have only six games remaining on their schedule. “I think at this stage of the year, it seems like it’s the right thing to do. I know they’re very disappointed about not being here with the team and [not] being able to see this through, but I think it’s borderline zero doubt that this is the right thing to do.”
Despite neither Covington nor Okafor being able to finish out the current campaign healthy, Brown was still bullish on what he saw from both players over the past six months.
“They should be proud of their work,” said Brown.
Covington, in his third-year with the Sixers, continued to move positively along a 3-and-D, two-way wingman developmental path. Prior to his injury, the 26-year old was tied with Dario Saric for the team-lead in scoring, at 12.9 points per game. Averaging a career-high 31.6 minutes per game while assuming a full-time starting role, Covington also established new personal-highs with 6.5 rebounds per game, and an overall field goal percentage of 39.9.
As for Covington’s 3-point production, with 137 triples this year, he became just the second player in franchise history to connect on at least 100 threes in three consecutive seasons. Kyle Korver also achieved the feat between 2004 and 2007.
Defense, however, especially at the ultra-demanding small forward spot, was where Covington left arguably his greatest mark this season. In 67 appearances, he posted 1.9 steals per game, good for the NBA’s third-best mark. The Tennessee State product also topped the league with 4.2 deflections per game, and, according to ESPN.com, generated the best defensive real plus-minus rating (4.08) among his positional peers.
“Robert…by all standards, had his best year in the NBA,” Brown said Friday. “He grew to a level that was respected around the league as a legitimate two-way player.”
In terms of numbers used to measure Covington’s defensive impact, there’s more. His individual defensive rating of 103.5 stands as the lowest among all Sixers to log a minimum of 20.0 minutes per game. Additionally, there’s no player on the Sixers’ roster whose removal from the court yields a higher team defensive rating than when Covington leaves the floor.
“When you look at all the analytics, the abundance of stats now available to us, you saw what he does when he’s on the floor with us, the differential,” said Brown. “You saw what he does when he’s guarding somebody in relation to points allowed. You saw what he does in regards to deflections. All over the place, you say he’s improving, and becoming one of our poster childs for development.”
“It’s just really impressive, his ability to become an elite defender,” Nik Stauskas said. “We always knew last year he was a guy who could really shoot it, and he was a good defender. He made himself so much more valuable this year with his ability to defend anyone on the floor.
“We knew whether we had LeBron [James] out there, KD [Kevin Durant], Carmelo [Anthony], or Kawhi [Leonard], any of the elite scorers on the wing, we knew that we had a guy we could put on them and feel comfortable that he could contain them to a good number.”
— Brian Seltzer (@brianseltzer) April 1, 2017
Between the Sixers’ early-season depth at center, and recurring soreness in his right knee, Okafor found himself in and out of the team’s line-up, his playing time inconsistent. In 50 outings, the big man accounted for 11.8 points and 4.8 rebounds in 22.7 minutes per game. His field goal percentage this year increased slightly, to 51.4, and he racked up five 20-point performances, to go along with two double-doubles.
Brown thought that, when given a chance to get into a rhythm, Okafor had “signs of fantastic play.”
“I think that all of us would look at some of those games that he did have opportunity, and was able to get his touches, and he scores,” said Brown. “He scores in his sleep…and just can put buckets up in big ways when he’s playing.”
T.J. McConnell, one of the Sixers with whom Okafor has become closest the past two years, admired the way the Duke product went about the season.
“He was very positive throughout the year, it kind of just shows what kind of teammate he is,” McConnell said. “He’s honestly one of the greatest dudes I’ve met.”
As a result of the Covington and Okafor announcements, the number of active players on the Sixers’ roster has now shrunk to nine. Tiago Splitter is part of this group; however, his minutes are being monitored. Gerald Henderson, meanwhile, has fought through lingering left hip soreness throughout the season.
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