Batum's brain and jumper shine especially bright in comeback play-in victory

Batum's brain and jumper shine especially bright in comeback play-in victory originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The day before the Sixers’ play-in tournament matchup vs. the Heat, Nicolas Batum forecasted his role would “increase a little bit more.”

He figured he’d need to find ways to get All-Stars Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey the ball in their sweet spots, serve as a “connector,” call upon his considerable experience in difficult moments.

How about hauling the Sixers out of a near-disastrous position and into a first-round playoff meeting with the Knicks?

Batum didn’t do it alone Wednesday night, but he was essential for the Sixers in their comeback win over the Heat. He posted 20 points off the bench and shot 6 for 10 from three-point territory.

The only other Sixer to make multiple long-range shots was Joel Embiid, who hit two.

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

Batum also blocked a game-tying Tyler Herro three-point attempt with under 30 seconds left.

Back in November, a few weeks after the Sixers acquired Batum in a trade headlined by James Harden, Embiid called him “the key” and praised his shooting, defending, passing and intelligence. The Sixers were grateful for all of that vs. the Heat.

They floundered against Miami’s zone in the first half and managed a mere 39 points. The Sixers air-balled jumpers, botched layups, skirted around the perimeter, and committed costly turnovers.

Batum recognized the occasion was right to launch jumpers and score his most points in a game this season.

“I know we can’t expect the same game every night,” he said. “Some games they need me to shoot like tonight. I won’t score 20 points per game. Don’t expect that. That was one game, OK? Maybe the next game I’ll only take two, three shots, but I’ll contribute something else.

“I try to have an impact on the game my way. … I don’t really care about (the stat sheet). All I care about is the numbers of my team. Can I impact my teammates and the Sixers winning this game? That’s the way I play. I’m 35 years old; I don’t care what I do (personally). My son will be like, ‘Oh, you only got two points.’ OK, kid. I’m trying. It’s just the way I play.”

One aspect of Batum’s game the Sixers value is his guard-anyone ability. He’s long been a rangy, fluid athlete, but Batum’s still happy to hound ball handlers in the backcourt and limit star wings’ comfortable looks.

And as Maxey highlighted, he’s even still capable of holding his own against true centers.

“He’s guarded from the small guys in the NBA like Trae Young to the tallest man in the NBA in (Victor Wembanyama). Let’s really think about that,” Maxey said. “His defensive versatility is second to none. Tonight he guarded Herro, he guarded (Jimmy) Butler, he guarded Bam Adebayo at times.

“What he’s done for this team, it’s been remarkable. … We’re going to need him down the stretch. He’s a big part of what we’re trying to do, and tonight he hit some big shots. Joel’s always on him about shooting threes, and he shot some big threes tonight and made ‘em. We appreciate Nico.”

Asked when he realized he could guard just about any assignment, Batum recalled a 2011 playoff series in which he checked Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki in the same game.

Batum's been around quite a while and his words carry weight.

“He’s been in the league for almost 25 years, it seems like,” Paul Reed said last Saturday. “When he tells me something, I always try to listen, take what he says, and actually implement it in the game. He really knows what he’s talking about. He’s never really steering me the wrong way, so I always listen.”

For naturally intense, energetic players like Reed and Oubre, Batum’s even-keeled presence is useful.

And again, it helps that his teammates trust Batum’s insights will be consistently excellent.

“He’s just a steadfast support human being on our team,” Oubre said. “He’s been doing this a very long time. He knows the ins and outs of the game and he’s very smart.

“He doesn’t say much but whenever he does speak, he tells you what to do and you do it. And it works every single time. I appreciate him for his leadership and everything he’s brought to the game of basketball.”

With both his words and his play, Batum has honed a brilliant sense for picking his spots.

“I’ve played with a lot of great coaches, a lot of great players, so I’ve learned through the years,” he said. “I’ve been a pro for 18 years. This is my 18th year, if you count my pro (seasons) in France before I got drafted to the NBA. So I think I learned to be calm in the game. I try to understand who I play with. How can I be a great fit with Tyrese? How can I help Joel space-wise? How can I talk to those guys?

“I don’t have the same legs, but I’ve still got my brain, so I just try to think the game and help my teammates be in the right positions.”

Thanks to Batum’s brain and his jumper, the Sixers can look forward to playoff basketball.