BOSTON - When an NBA game begins, the coaches of the teams are each carrying 240 minutes of playing time in their pockets, and at this time of the year, those aren't doled out to make anyone feel good.
The time for character building and confidence boosting is long gone, and veteran players like Elton Brand – who watched the final 20 minutes, 21 seconds of Game 1 versus Boston from the bench – know that better than anyone.
"It's not personal. It's personnel," Brand said.
Yes, it is, and coaches see the players as interlocking pieces of a machine in those precious 48 minutes times five. They are looking for the gears that fit together the tightest. As this Eastern Conference semifinal series continues, there are a number of areas the Sixers must adjust and tighten, but how to retool the power forward position is really high up the list.
Brand and Thaddeus Young, playing against Chicago and Boston in the postseason, have not been very good at all. In the seven playoff games so far, they have combined for a 48-minute average of 13 points and nine rebounds.
The Sixers got away with that lack of production - barely - in the Chicago series, somehow managing to win two games in which they scored fewer than 80 points and three games in which they shot less than 40 percent from the field. They won't be so lucky against Boston, a composed team that locates an opponent's weaknesses and targets its game there.
"They knew exactly what they were going to get into and execute," Andre Iguodala said of the 92-91 loss on Saturday. "When we had [a span] when we really didn't get anything good. . . . we showed we were trying to figure out what we were going to do."
In some ways, it is the difference between a young team and a veteran team that has already been through these experiences together. In times like that, the Sixers need veteran leadership from guys like Brand and Young. Unfortunately, Brand wasn't effective playing against Boston's regular lineup, where he should have had some advantage, and Young was invisible on the floor when the Celtics went to a smaller, quicker lineup, which is when he usually excels.
"Elton was struggling a little bit . . . and guys know at this point in time, you've got to go with the guys who are playing well," Doug Collins said. "If he's playing well, he'll get those minutes. And when they go to a smaller lineup, it's tough for me to put EB and Spencer [Hawes] out there together."
Defensively, the Sixers couldn't find an advantage regardless of what unit Boston put on the floor.
"We're not a team that can pound you inside," Collins said. "When they go small, we have to matchup small. My philosophy has always been that if a team goes small, pound them. But we don't have that kind of team. In the past, it has helped us to go small because that helps Thad, but we didn't take advantage of that yesterday."
Young and Brand combined for just nine points and, worse yet, in a total of 27 minutes on the court, they combined for two rebounds. Two rebounds. The Celtics and Sixers missed 92 shots from the field and a 6-foot-9 guy and a 6-8 guy got one rebound each.
"I see the big picture. What matters is winning the game," Brand said. "My disappointment in not playing is that we lost."
Brand is dealing with a stiff neck and Young suffered a mild ankle sprain in Game 1 that did not prevent him from returning to the court. Those ailments probably don't help, but they also don't change the fact that the Sixers frontcourt needs to get significantly better.
On Saturday, there were too many offensive rebounds for Boston, extended possessions that the Celtics like to turn into three-point attempts because the opposing defense has usually collapsed in search of the rebound. In Game 1, the Celtics, who were among the top five in three-point shooting percentage in the conference this season, made just 2-of-18 three-point tries.
"They're going to make more of those," Collins said.
The Sixers have to improve their rebounding at the defensive end. They particularly have to keep Rajon Rondo from swooping in for offensive rebounds, although preventing the point guard from filling up every line of the stat sheet is a difficult job.
Rondo was the difference maker in Game 1, despite his seven turnovers. His eighth career triple-double was highlighted by 17 assists, which is a fairly amazing number coming on a team that shot an ordinary 44 percent from the field.
"Rondo knows exactly where everybody wants the ball, and all five guys on the floor know their hot spots," Lou Williams said. "They're an unselfish team and that gives you a challenge right there."
The Sixers are still searching for their spots, still feeling their way through every halfcourt possession. They are still looking for some help from the power forward, too, whichever one it is. Until they fit the gears tightly together, that grinding noise you hear might be the coach's teeth.