Nicolas Batum shows impact of role players in Sixers’ Play-In win over Heat

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Nicolas Batum shows impact of role players in Sixers’ Play-In win over Heat

PHILADELPHIA — Nicolas Batum was not included in every iteration of the trade the Philadelphia 76ers eventually completed with the LA Clippers in November. The 76ers pushed and the Clippers hedged, and on it went. But in the end, when the Sixers sent James Harden to Los Angeles, they got Batum.

The trade was one of several turning points for Philadelphia in their jagged season. It was supposed to be the benchmark of a transition for the franchise, instead it also landed them the man who kept this season alive.

As the Sixers completed their 105-104 comeback victory over the Miami Heat Wednesday night in a stilted and punchy affair, it was Batum, the 35-year-old French swingman with a nuanced game and a wet jumper, who helped lead the way. He did it, as he always does, with a quick trigger shot and an intellect that has made him a respected veteran in the Sixers locker room.

He is, at this point, comfortable with who he is. Batum is no longer the occasional triple-double threat he was earlier in his career in Charlotte or Portland. He has lost explosiveness but found a way to exploit the seams of an opponent’s defense. He relies on his brain now as much as his length and agility, and the Sixers have come to rely on him to defend guards and forwards and even centers on occasions. His speed is in how he processes information.

Wednesday, it helped him block Tyler Herro on the biggest defensive play of the night. A 76ers coach had taken an iPad to Batum on the bench during a stoppage late in the fourth quarter and showed him a clip of Herro curling around a pick, moving to the right with the ball, and putting up a 3-point shot. That video was from a play earlier this season. Moments later, Batum found himself on the court as Herro recreated it, almost point by point near half court with the Heat down 3 and about a half-minute remaining. Batum eluded Bam Adebayo’s screen as he chased down Herro, slipped behind him after a jab step and then recovered to block Herro’s shot with 26 seconds left.

“I was expecting it,” Batum said.

Yet, few could have expected Batum’s heroics Wednesday night, but it was why the 76ers had pushed for him in that trade all along. When Philadelphia fell behind by 14 in the second quarter and still trailed by 11 five minutes into the third quarter, Batum helped pull them back. He had 20 points, including six 3s, with 17 in the second half. He hit the 3 that put the Sixers back within eight and they never longed behind by double-digits again as they made a steady climb back to the top.

“He was the guy tonight,” Kelly Oubre Jr. said. “He came and he brought his full clip. I’m just so glad that he shot it. He just saved the game on both ends of the floor.”

Batum has come to terms with who he is at this point in his career. Even on a night he plays the starring role, he considers himself to be complementary. After the Sixers struggled in the first half, he tried to be a release valve for Embiid and Maxey in the third quarter and to take the pressure off of Philadelphia’s stars.

His strengths are subtle. He no longer scores as he did in his prime in Charlotte. He cannot. He manages expectations for himself and of himself.

He has figured out his niche and tried to exploit it. His calling card is his versatility. Batum figured out early in his career that he could guard each position and worked to master that. After a mid-career swoon, he has become a reliable 40-percent 3-point shooter. He is reliable, if not consistent in how he’ll impact a game.

“I know that you can’t really expect the same game every night from me,” Batum said. “Some nights, maybe I’ll shoot like tonight. I won’t score 20 points per game. Don’t expect that from me. That was one game. .. Maybe next game I’m going to take only two, three shots but I’ll do something else. I’ll try to have an impact in the game in my way. I know I don’t expect the same stuff every single game. Some games we do some stuff, other games it will be different. But I know it can impact and bring something to this team.”

The Sixers needed every little bit. They looked rudderless in the first and second quarter as Miami pivoted to their zone defense after Adebayo drew his second foul with 6:55 left in the first. The Heat moved fluidly across the court as the 76ers tried to break their defense horizontally, and instead kept giving the ball away. While Butler limped on with a knee injury after a first-quarter foul from Oubre that took him out on a layup attempted, the Heat kept building a lead.

Miami contained Embiid in the first half — he had just 10 points on 2-of-8 shooting — and Maxey fared a little better. It seemed as the Heat would pull off their April magic again and the Sixers would continue to falter in the postseason as is habit. But as Philadelphia started to attack Miami downhill, it found holes to take advantage of. The Sixers scored 66 points in the second half alone. Embiid finished with 23 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and had five assists. Tyrese Maxey scored 19 points but missed 10-of-16 shots.

The win might have just given the 76ers new life. The 76ers, having notched the No. 7 seed after barely grinding past the Heat despite Butler playing most of the game with an injured knee that left him clearly hobbled, will go to New York Saturday for Game 1 of their first-round series. Miami hosts Chicago Friday night, with the winner getting the No. 8 seed.

Now, the Sixers will move on for a rugged first-round series. The Knicks have an NBA Most Valuable Player of the Year candidate of their own in Jalen Brunson, a perfect foil for Embiid, as unassuming and skilled as Embiid is daunting. They’ll face a team that beat them in three of their four meetings and caused them endless trouble.

While the spotlight will be on the stars, it may just be won on the edges, with role players who understand where they fit in and how. Wednesday, it was Batum who helped swing the game, and may swing another in a different way.

(Top photo: Photo by Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)