After hanging their hat on defense all season, the 76ers did the same in their 130-103 Game 1 playoff victory over the Miami Heat on Saturday night, and leading the Sixers’ defensive charge was Robert Covington.
As he was in the regular season, Covington was tasked with guarding Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade, along with whoever was picked up on a switch, including Kelly Olynyk and Wayne Ellington.
Miami plays a slower, more methodical style of half-court basketball than many teams. With their guards running side-to-side for much of the shot clock, Covington’s defensive assignments are constantly on the move, a job that can be tiring and requires adaptability.
“I thought he was unbelievable. I thought he was a man,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said after the game. “He is deceptively strong, and he’s so versatile a defensive player. He can sit down and guard Dragic or can go over and he may get caught on Olynyk, and he can guard that, too. He’s such a wonderful story for us because he is a poster child for development.”
Covington didn’t seem fazed in his first playoff game, using his length to bother the Heat, holding Dragic and Wade to just 18 first-half points combined.
But in the second quarter, Covington committed his third foul with 5 minutes, 43 seconds left and was subsequently forced to the bench for the rest of the first half. It’s not surprising that Dragic had his best quarter in the second, scoring five of his 15 points in that span that led to a 60-56 lead at the end of the first half.
When the third quarter started, Covington picked up where he left off, and the Sixers continued their trend of using the third quarter to change the tone of the game.
Covington notched his second block with 9:43 left in the third quarter, recovering the blocked ball to take over possession. Two minutes later, Covington was on the floor, battling with Dragic for a loose ball and forcing one of the many jump balls of the game. One minute later, Covington had another block that he secured.
“Coach always says you have to be a son-of-gun on defense,” Covington said with a laugh, admitting that Brown uses a different word. “He gave me that challenge years ago, and I took that challenge on, and to see it propel me to this level, it’s a testament to hard work.”
Dragic went into Saturday’s game averaging 17.3 points per game but fully capable of putting up a 20- or 30-point game as he has done many times over the last month. But it wasn’t just Dragic who was pestered by Covington. Wade wasn’t any more successful on the offensive end.
Wade’s signature pump fakes worked a few times on Saturday, but Covington wasn’t falling for it. Wade closed out the night with just 11 points.
“They played unbelievably well,” Dragic said of the Sixers. “They didn’t go away from their game, and they were physical the whole game.”
With 8:16 left to play in the fourth quarter, Covington picked up his fifth foul. But by then, the damage was done. The Sixers had built a 14-point lead that they continued to expand.
Usually not one to talk about himself, Covington was proud of his defensive performance and how his team came together in the second half.
“What I did on the defensive end allowed us to get a lot of open looks in transition, a lot of fast-break looks,” he said. “I’m not too busy getting caught up in the stuff that goes on the offensive side. I’m a guy that will do the little things, and my teammates take notice of that stuff, and that’s what matters the most.”
Covington finished the night with nine points, seven rebounds, four assists, three blocks, and he comfortably watched from the bench as the Sixers took a lead in the best of seven series.