When Caris LeVert went down with his gruesome-looking foot injury in November, the initial assumption was that his season was over. It made sense at the time. When you combine his history of foot injuries, and the fact that he had to be taken off in a stretcher, the projections tend to be pessimistic. But then LeVert was diagnosed with a subtalar dislocation, the type of injury that looks a lot worse than it actually is. This meant that LeVert would be returning to play in the same season where it looked like his ankle was just barely hanging on to his leg.
But he never quite returned to the form he was in before the injury. After averaging 19 points a game at the beginning of the season, he’d only hit 19 points or higher in two of the 26 games he played after his return. To reflect this dip, his starting role was reduced to one on the bench. Yet despite the fact that LeVert had yet to fully get back to where he once was statistically (for the most part), coach Kenny Atkinson stood firm with the confidence he had in his player and even touched on his importance in the upcoming playoff run.
With Atkinson counting on his guards again vs. the Sixers, he’s encouraged by the version of LeVert he’s seen at the close of the season.
“Just so anxious for him to get to that level,” said Atkinson. “I think he was frustrated by not getting there sooner. I knew there was going to be a point where it clicked and I think that happened four or five games ago. The good thing, we haven’t seen any regression; you’re afraid well it’s just a one-game thing or a two-game thing. Now he’s stringing three, four, five games together. I think it changes the conversation. To me, I look at it, he’s like an x-factor in these playoffs. If he can continue to play at the level he’s playing, even raise it one more level, that gives us more confidence going into the playoffs.”
It’s likely that LeVert will never reveal if it was because of his coach’s encouraging words, or the fact that the 76ers looked like tired old dog shit on Saturday, that he was able to drop 23 points off the bench, but we at least know that Atkinson calling him an “x-factor” was pretty spot-on. There aren’t many bench players in the league right now that can come in and score at will against some of the best teams in the conference—and even fewer that can do it just months after a tough injury—which is what LeVert was good for during his 23 minutes against Philadelphia.
I understand that the Nets were playing in Philadelphia, but any time a player is able to get a home crowd to turn on its team with a shot is remarkable. Plus, it’s not like he was only up against the second unit. It didn’t matter if the Sixers put Tobias Harris, Mike Scott or even Ben Simmons on him. He was going to score on whoever got in his way. Of course, it certainly helped that often times Philadelphia would get in its own way and forget to guard LeVert altogether.
Perhaps the best news for LeVert is that while he may be the “x-factor” in this series, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Sixers are going to overplay their hand and throw everything they have at him in Game 2, as if he was the one thorn in the team’s side. D’Angelo Russell also torched them for 28 and they allowed the Nets to shoot 42.3% from three in the game. There’s a lot the Sixers have to fix before Monday’s match up. If anything, LeVert might have to face off against a more talented defender sooner in the game. But he’s already shown that he is capable of beating even the best perimeter defenders that Philadelphia has to offer.