The Sixers’ 5-0 record when Nicolas Batum plays is no coincidence.
Sure, it’s entirely possible that a team with reigning MVP Joel Embiid, ever-rising star Tyrese Maxey, and the NBA’s top offensive rating outside of garbage time would have won all those games regardless.
However, Embiid doesn’t seem to think so.
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“He’s the key,” Embiid said Sunday night of Batum following the 10-3 Sixers’ 22-point victory over the Nets at Barclays Center. “He’s special. With the way we play, he just fits everything we need. Great shooter; good defender; great passer; great basketball IQ. He just fits everything we need.”
Batum returned Sunday after a three-game absence because of personal reasons. His wife was “going through some health issues the last couple weeks,” he said postgame.
“That’s not something fun to go through, but we have to go through it as a family. … It’s been going on for a couple weeks now,” Batum said. “But hey, sometimes you have to do what you need to do for your family. It’ll be OK now. She’s going to be fine and we’ll be fine.”
In game No. 1,001 of his NBA career, Batum almost immediately assisted Embiid. He waited for the six-time All-Star big man to seal Nic Claxton deep in the paint, tossed the ball in, and pumped his fist after Embiid’s and-one hoop.
On a third-quarter dish to Embiid, Batum slid up from the right slot as Embiid rolled to the rim, took a Maxey pass, and then instantly lofted a flawless high-low feed.
The 34-year-old forward doesn’t tend to produce standout stats these days, but it’s still seemed that there’s very little he’s incapable of doing. Sixers head coach Nick Nurse called him “such a glue guy.”
“Defensively, he’s just really good,” Nurse said. “Really smart, right? He does all the schemes correctly; great communication on switching; he’s able to guard almost every position on the floor because of his unique size and quickness — and his length.
“And then on the offensive side, he’s a really good passer, knows how to move it to the next player. He cuts, re-spaces, helps with organization. Just an experienced guy that really understands how to play basketball.”
To Batum, a “glue guy” role hasn’t been unnatural whatsoever.
“I’ve always been like this,” he said. “I’ve always been that kind of guy since I was a teenager. Back in Europe, I was the MVP of EuroBasket Under-18 averaging 12 points, because I was doing everything. So that’s pretty much been who I was my whole life, just playing the game that way.”
FIBA’s records say that’s a slight exaggeration; Batum, who’s now the captain of France’s senior men’s national team, averaged 14.3 points in 2006 for that gold medal-winning U-18 team. Of course, the heart of his point absolutely stands.
When asked about another youth basketball memory, Batum went into full-blown storytelling mode, smiling as he recalled a 2007 FIBA U-19 World Cup semifinal loss to a United States team featuring current Sixers teammate Patrick Beverley.
“He loves bringing up that story,” Batum said. “Yeah, we lost by (three), semifinals of the World Cup. We were up 15 at halftime. We were up two with 30 seconds to go and this … dude makes a three. That’s how I found out who was Steph Curry. Broke my heart already and I was 19 years old. That’s a good memory.”
The details don’t exactly match Batum’s entertaining recollection. France squandered its lead well before the final minute, while Curry’s biggest shot was a long two-pointer assisted by Beverley with about 80 seconds left that extended Team USA's lead to three. Curry shot 2 for 9 from the field.
What’s more telling than any scrutiny of the specifics is the essence of Batum’s game truly appears the same as it did before Embiid had even started playing basketball.
Another important, versatile Sixers role player made a much larger scoring impact than Batum in Brooklyn.
De’Anthony Melton scored 21 points on 8-for-10 shooting. He's sunk 16 of his last 25 three-pointers after a cold start, raising his early-season percentage to 44.1.
“He’s such a good shooter, good player,” Nurse said. “I think somebody asked me if I was worried about it, and I just figured he would find it. He was getting good shots. … I tell you what, he’s making some improvement going to the basket, too. He had a couple of really great finishes.
“He’s kind of got both those things figured out right now. And it’s huge for us. Again, there should be a lot of crowded paints and we’re going to need to shoot over the top of those sometimes.”
Melton has indeed capitalized often lately after Embiid and Maxey draw heaps of deserved attention.
When the paint is packed and everyone’s worried about the stars, the Sixers want Melton to move into open space and fire away.
Melton said Sunday he “had to go back to the basics” and refocus on “mechanics, footwork, ball placement.”
He also credited the constant prodding from everyone around him.
“My teammates just kept instilling confidence in me,” he said. “They just kept telling me to shoot; they were making fun of me for not shooting. That type of stuff, it lets you know who you are. They were telling me no matter what, at the end of the season … you’re going to be above 40 percent.”
On the subject of his finishing, Melton’s self-assessment was understandably harsher. Though Melton has slammed in some highlight dunks, he’s made just 11 of 31 shots at the rim overall, per Cleaning the Glass.
“I’ve been terrible before tonight,” Melton said.
Maxey, eavesdropping at the locker next to Melton’s, asked, “What are you talking about?”
He figured it out a few seconds later.
“Oh, layups!” Maxey said with a laugh.
“Keep attacking no matter what,” Melton continued. “And I’m going to keep hearing it until I start making them, so I might as well start making them.”