Even after deciding to start James Ennis and rest Jimmy Butler on Tuesday, Brett Brown was not willing to concede that Ennis had won a spot in the 76ers’ postseason rotation.
“Is he winning the tournament? We still have 15 games left," Brown said.
Ennis followed up that pregame statement with his best performance since joining the Sixers last month. The 6-foot-7 small forward put up 12 points, seven rebounds, two assists, and one block in a 106-99 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“He was our bell ringer tonight," Brown said after the game. “Defensively, he did some really good things, I thought he moved his feet well, I thought he kept the game in front of him a lot, better than some of our other perimeter defensive people, and he made some shots. Tonight, he was very, very good, one of our best defensive players.”
Ennis is up against Jonathon Simmons in Brown’s “tournament.” The winner will be a part of the Sixers’ nine-man rotation that sees the bulk of the action during the postseason, joining Butler, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, JJ Redick, Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott, and T.J. McConnell.
It hasn’t been easy for Ennis to find a rhythm with Brown’s experimental style. Contending with Simmons for playing time, he plays some nights and he doesn’t play others. But, over the last week, things have been more consistent, capped with Tuesday’s spot start.
Ennis had been planning for such an opportunity, and coincidentally, he started in place of a player who he has looked to for direction for years.
Just one year before Ennis entered the league, in 2014, he watched Butler make the leap from a role player to a starter, and eventually an All-Star.
“Coming into the league, I looked up to Jimmy,” Ennis said. “He showed people that if you put the work in, you can change your whole game and everything else.”
Three years ago, Ennis started working with trainer Chris Johnson in California during the offseason. Johnson just happens to be Butler’s trainer, too.
Butler has a reputation for early, long, and intense offseason workouts. Johnson has many NBA clients, including some who often say they will join him in his all-day sessions, Butler said,.
“A lot of people say they are going to do it, but not many show up,” Butler said.
Ennis showed up last summer and instantly earned the respect of his now-teammate.
“He loves the game, and I really respect people that grind, especially the way that I do it, because we get up early and go all day, then go back at night,” Butler said. “For him to do what I do, it’s not easy — it’s really not. He loves the game and loves to work, and those are all good things.”
Ennis described the workouts as “crazy intense” and called Butler “a different kind of beast.” Ennis is hoping that extra work will pay off, now that he is with his sixth team in just four seasons.
The first step is to win Brown’s tournament and earn a spot in the postseason rotation, and even if Brown isn’t willing to concede that the battle is over, Ennis’ teammates sounded sure after Tuesday night’s game.
“I think he’s somebody that we need in that role, as the wing guy off the bench,” Redick said. “I didn’t know he was a good of an offensive rebounder as he is. He’s made some spectacular plays at the rim, off the glass.”
Ennis was a bright spot in a game in which the rest of the Sixers seemed to be playing down to the lowly Cavaliers. His energy, athleticism, and defensive persistence stood out, and Embiid said that’s what the Sixers need when the going gets tough.