Spencer Hawes' inspired play late in game three and carried over into game four has been a pleasant surprise, and absolutely crucial to the Sixers 3-1 lead in their first round series with the Chicago Bulls, but the big theme, and the potentially unsolvable problem for Tom Thibodeau is the play of Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner, in tandem.
Jrue is averaging 19.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5 assists on 45.5% from the floor, 37.5% from three, and most importantly, over 4 free throw attempts per game through the first four. Evan Turner is at 14/6.3/3.8 and has gotten to the line over 5 times per game. The numbers are nice, but what they don't tell is the conundrum their play has caused for Thibodeau.
When Derrick Rose went down, the Bulls lost their streak-stopper on the offensive end. They lost the guy who could beat the best defense with an out-of-this-world move. His absence means the Bulls need to operate more like the Sixers on the offensive end. They need to create mismatches, they need to move the ball and run really crisp sets to get their shooters good looks. Quite often, that means they need to have five offensive players on the floor to be able to generate a good look, and against the Sixers even that doesn't work a lot of the time. The big problem here is that Chicago's best five offensive players are not their five best defensive players.
Which brings us right back to Jrue and Evan. C.J. Watson cannot guard Jrue. Flat out, in isolation, Jrue gets wherever he wants and gets whatever shot he wants when Watson is on him. It doesn't end with Watson, though. Lucas, CJ, Rip, Korver. None of those guys can guard Jrue. The same list applies to Turner. Put any of those guys on either Jrue or Turner and the Sixers have a mismatch. A mismatch that allows the Sixers' guards to penetrate either to get shots for themselves, get open looks for the bigs, get open drive-and-kick looks from three for Iguodala or the other guard, or to get to the line.
Yesterday's atrocious shooting in the first half by the guards wasn't nearly as troubling as you might think. Jrue and Turner kept shooting, yes, but they weren't just heaving up 20-footers off the dribble. Their misses were coming in the lane, at the rim. They were blowing by their men and getting to the hoop. The Bulls had to collapse, they had to collapse, they had to give and give and give until four guys were stacked in the paint, which meant wide open looks from the outside, offensive rebounds and a ton of trips to the line.
The Sixers have built their defense around stout perimeter defense. Stopping perimeter players before they can put pressure on the weak interior defense. What they're doing to the Bulls on the offensive end is the exact opposite. Continually applying pressure on the Bulls bigs - a group more capable than most of handling the assault - eventually leads to easy points. Easier shots than the Bulls are accustomed to yielding, offensive boards, trips to the line and foul trouble for the Chicago bigs.
Thibodeau has two perimeter defenders on his roster who may have a chance at slowing down Turner and Jrue. Luol Deng and Ronnie Brewer. At least, Deng can probably handle Turner, I don't think he's quick enough to stay with Jrue off the dribble. The big problem is Thibodeau really can't afford the luxury of playing a defensive specialist who doesn't contribute on the offensive end, not to mention the fact that his offense is completely sputtering even when he has his absolute best offensive five on the floor.
The luxury Doug Collins has at this point is he can put his best defensive unit out there, stymie the Bulls offense, and on the other end, even when the game gets ugly. Even when the Bulls are taking away their normal sets, he's got at least one playmaker with a mismatch. When all else fails, he can isolate Jrue with Watson on him, or Turner with Rip on him, and the Sixers are going to get a decent look, or better. It's kind of like the luxury the Bulls usually have with Rose, only Rose has that mismatch against everyone, not just guys like Korver and Rip.
Of course, none of this matters if Collins doesn't take advantage, something he's been unwilling to do most of the time this season, or maybe it's just that he thought Lou filled this role best in other matchups. Whatever the reason, he's ridden Jrue and Evan down the stretch over the past two games. He's let them abuse their mismatches and he's come away with two big, big wins. Now just do it again tomorrow night.