Of all the consequential moments that have shaped the trajectory of this Sixers season, the most significant might have been one that occurred on a Saturday night in Dallas in late October.
With JJ Redick battling a case of lower back tightness, head coach Brett Brown opted to replace the veteran shooting guard with power forward Dario Saric, resulting in a more conventional starting lineup than the three-guard unit he’d been fielding. It was an interesting decision given the way Saric’s season was going. At the time, the second-year big man was averaging just 5.6 points in 21.4 minutes per night while shooting a miserable 3-for-14 from three-point range. Yet in a 112-110 win over the Mavericks, Saric knocked down four of his seven shots from downtown and played well enough overall that Brown kept him in the starting lineup once Redick returned.
If you are looking for a reason why the Sixers were able to so vastly outperform expectations this season, the performance of their Croatian four-man is the place to start. That’s not to say he was their most valuable player, an honor that obviously goes to either Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid. But Saric is the player who most exceeded our projections for what he could be, transforming himself from a rookie mucker-and-grinder who shot an unimpressive 31.1 percent from downtown into a significant offensive weapon who fit the exact profile his team needed.
In the Sixers’ 130-103 blowout of the Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals on Saturday night, Saric turned in a performance that was emblematic of his role all season, knocking down three of four three-point shots during their 74-43 second-half run and finishing with 20 points while shooting 4-for-6 from downtown. It is that stroke that has made Saric such a valuable member of the Sixers’ rotation. He finished the regular season with a .393 shooting percentage from deep, which ranked in the top 26 percent of players with at least 200 attempts. More significantly, it represented a dramatic improvement over his rookie season, when his .311 mark ranked 132nd out of 135 players. In fact, no shooter who averaged at least 200 three-point attempts in both seasons improved his conversion rate more than Saric’s 8.2 percent bump.
Saric’s success from downtown has had huge implications for the Sixers’ offense. The main reason they started the season with Redick and Jerryd Bayless flanking Ben Simmons on the perimeter was the belief that they needed to surround the 6-foot-10 point guard with shooters. The one weapon they seemed to lack was a four-man capable of stretching the defense with an above-average ability to knock down threes.
“It’s the future of our sport,” Brown said. “If you don’t have a four-man that can stretch the floor you aren’t going to play very long in the playoffs.”
At the start of the season, the question was whether Saric could become that kind of guy. In a lot of ways, no player better encapsulates the Sam Hinkie era of wheeling and dealing than the guy Hinkie nabbed from the Magic when he drafted Elfrid Payton and then ransomed him off for the rights to a first-round pick the Sixers’ previous regime had surrendered in one of its many ill-advised trades. In May of 2016, Brown and new general manager Bryan Colangelo visited Saric in Istanbul, Turkey, where he had been playing professionally since Hinkie acquired him two years earlier. Saric was ready to make the jump to the NBA. Brown’s message to him was simple: Your future will be your three-point shot.
“I came here, I needed to adjust to the new three-point line, new game, new teammates — everything was more tough for me,” Saric said. “The first time I got a couple months off, I got time to improve my game and I worked on that. Coach told me: for your future, the three-point shot will be big.”
While that draft class looks stronger with each passing year — Jusuf Nurkic, Clint Capela and Rodney Hood, all drafted after Saric in the first round, are each significant members of playoff rotations — Saric has given the Sixers more this season than a lot of the players whom conventional wisdom suggested were safer plays at the time (paging Doug McDermott …).
“What it has now equaled is a reliable three-point shooter, and a confident three-point shooter,” Brown said. “Generally, that ends up equaling playoff basketball. The sport doesn’t seem to get bigger, it seems to get smaller, and small ball and stretching the floor and put as many shooters as you can on the floor.”
You saw it against the Heat in Game 1, when Brown opened up the second half with Ersan Ilyasova paired with Saric instead of Amir Johnson, who had started the game but does not have the outside shot that Ilyasova has. There was a play in the midst of the Sixers’ run that encapsulated Saric’s progression as a shooter, when he spotted up on the right wing, caught a pass in rhythm and rose up quickly to release a shot a split second before a closing out defender’s hand arrived. After the ball splashed through the net, Saric pumped his fist and roared. It’s a sight we have seen a lot this season. And it is one of the biggest reasons the Sixers are where they are now.