Sixers want Robert Covington to keep firing threes, for better or worse | Marcus Hayes

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Sixers forward Robert Covington shoots the basketball before the start of team practice inside Lavietes Pavilion at Harvard University on Tuesday, May 1, 2018.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Robert Covington is on the Sixers’ roster to do two things.

He’s there to defend and to take, and make, three-point shots. He’s doing a passable job defending, but he’s shooting poorly. He missed all four three-pointers in the Sixers’ Game 1 loss at Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

So, of course, the Sixers want him to shoot more threes.

“We need to shoot more threes as a team,” said coach Brett Brown, whose team went 5-for-26 on Monday. “The threes we took, we’d take most of them again. And then some.”

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The growing chorus of Covington bashers won’t like it, but that includes Covington, the most specialized three-point shooter among the starters. He’s averaging just 4.7 attempts in six playoff games, 2.2 fewer attempts than in the regular season. He’s also hitting just 32.1 percent of his threes in the playoffs, 4.8 percent worse than during the season, and he’s scoring just 8.3 points per game, 4.3 fewer than during the season. He had three points Monday, all on free throws.

That must change for the Sixers to move on. Brown knows it. The Celtics didn’t care that Joel Embiid rumbled for 31 points. They just wanted to make sure that Brown’s most stationary bombers — JJ Redick, Dario Saric, Ersan Ilyasova and Covington — remained blanketed beyond the three-point line.

Redick was 2-for-7. The other three went 0-for-11.

“Schematically, Boston’s always mindful of the three-point shot. In some ways, they seem OK to let Joel get 40. They’re very mindful of the perimeter,” Brown said.

The Sixers averaged 29.8 three-point attempts in the regular season and 31.4 tries against Miami in the first round of the playoffs. The Celtics’ obsession with denying long-range shots held the Sixers below their norm. As usual, according to Brown, Covington suffered for it:

“When teams do that and they do it well — and Boston does do that well — Robert can be influenced, if we don’t help him with movement, and [ball] movement as a team, and have him be aware of blind defenders,” Brown said.

That means, in Game 2 in Boston on Thursday, Brown expects to run more plays designed for Covington, that Brown will insist on better passing by the entire team, and that Covington must make defenders pay when they look the other way.

There are problems with that plan. First, as Brown noted, the Celtics are unwilling to double-team Embiid, so plays run through him might not affect the Celtics’ defense. Second, the Celtics will continue to dare gun-shy point guards Ben Simmons and T.J. McConnell to shoot from the perimeter.

These strategies make defending Covington much easier. So does Covington’s own game.

Now in his fourth full NBA season, Covington seldom creates his own shot. More than any other Sixer, his offense relies on hockey assists; a teammate gets the ball and is relatively open, draws a defender, then kicks it to another player who is even more open. That player often is Covington.

The Heat were pretty good at denying the hockey assist.

The Celtics are spectacular.

They led the NBA in three-point defense, at 33.9 percent. They held the Sixers to 19.2 percent in Game 1.

“We didn’t make a lot of shots because of how they defended us,” Covington said. “They took away some things we’re normally good at. Got us out of rhythm a little bit.”

Covington’s difficulties in these playoffs shouldn’t be surprising. Among teams Covington faced at least three times during the regular season, the Celtics and Heat held him to his worst three-point percentages: 28.0 percent (7-for-25) and 20.8 percent (5-for-24), respectively.

As for the contingent of Sixers fans that now cringes when Covington pulls up? If Brown has his way, they’ll cringe even more.

The Sixers didn’t sign Covington to a 4-year, $62 million contract extension in November just for his defense (which is still good, Terry Rozier’s 29 points Monday notwithstanding). The Sixers signed Covington to shoot threes, and to shoot more often than any other player.

Believe it or not, Covington took more three-pointers per game this season than even J.J. Redick (6.9 to 6.6). What’s more, 65.7 percent of Covington’s field goals attempts were threes. Redick was at 52.3 percent.

At practice on Tuesday, Covington promised that, in the future, he will do all he can to keep Brown happy.

“All my shots felt good [Monday],” Covington said.

None went in.

Bombs away.