If this ends up being Brett Brown’s final series as Sixers head coach, it will be fitting that he spent its first two games showing everybody why. For 24 minutes on Wednesday night, his team looked like the basketball equivalent of a rambling drunk in desperate pursuit of a train of thought. After a first quarter in which the Sixers exploited the same mismatches that had been there for them at the start of Game 1, the Celtics made the same adjustments. And rather than countering those moves, the Sixers acted taken aback.
Staggering between the sidelines, they dribbled into defenders and they meandered off the ball as if it would magically score itself. The serpentine manner in which they navigated the court left the distinct impression that an imaginary alligator was chasing them. In each possession, a point would arrive where the Sixers collectively realized that somebody would need to shoot. And so somebody would do it, while fading away and off-balance.
If you think any of that sounds harsh, you were watching something else. In fact, it is a charitable description. Over the course of a quarter, the Sixers devolved from a poised, confident team with a commanding 25-11 lead to a stumbling, bumbling mess that operated with all of the precision of a Black Friday crowd.
And then it continued. Brown had no answers in the second quarter, and he apparently found none at halftime of the Sixers’ 128-101 loss in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference first-round series. By the end of the third quarter, the Celtics were on an 80-44 run, and laughing like it was a nonconference game in which the team managers were playing.
“The message is some level of belief,” Brown said afterward. “I think that there is enough character, and there is enough talent in the room to respond.”
Yet basketball is a game where character and spirit can only take you so far. If the Sixers’ locker room has the talent they allege — and they unquestionably have more than they showed on Wednesday, even without Ben Simmons — then the long stretches of ineptitude that have plagued this team throughout the season can only fall on Brown.
The box score will say that the Sixers lost the game on the defensive end, with Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker cruising in stat-padding mode through most of the final three quarters. Yet NBA superstars are going to get their points. At some point, your own superstars are going to have to match them.
It’s a fair question whether anybody outside of Embiid belongs in that category. At this point, it seems clear that Tobias Harris and Al Horford do not. Maybe Brown looks like a better coach if Harris doesn’t go stone cold in Game 2. He would undoubtedly look like a better one if they had a guard capable of freeing up Joel Embiid by getting into the paint.
But it also seems clear that the Sixers are a far less imposing whole than the sum of the talents of their constituent parts. Harris might not be an elite primary scorer, but he does plenty of things well enough to whiteboard a competent possession at least once or twice in a quarter. Josh Richardson might be mired in that maddening midground between average and good, but, like Harris, he has the benefit of sharing the court with the NBA’s best two-way center.
The biggest indictment of Brown in Game 2 was the presence of that center, and the coach’s inability to mold the other four players on the court into a complementary offense. For the second straight night, Embiid was the best player on the court for the first six minutes of the game. He came out of the gates throwing his body into Daniel Theis and then taking advantage of the space that the laws of physics provided.
When Embiid is operating at this level, he isn’t just the best big man in the game, he is in his own tier. Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns might put up comparable numbers, but neither has the ability to single-handedly dominate a half-quarter’s worth of possessions in spite of his opposition’s complete awareness of the fact that his team has little choice but to ask him to try to do so. When Embiid checked out of the game for the first time, the Sixers held a 21-11 lead and he’d scored or assisted on 17 of those points.
And then things went downhill. Celtics coach Brad Stevens brought his usual unpredictable cast of defenders from the weak side to knock Embiid out of rhythm. As the night wore on, the big man’s shot wore flatter. Unlike Stevens, Brown had no answers.
“I thought Joel was tough tonight,” Brown said after the game. “We tried to play through him. We just needed a little bit more. I think that there has been enough success … where you can call upon things without Ben that you can point to that are real. And so, it’s up to me to recognize those things, to point them out in a real way, and help them get through this.”
The simple truth is that, in spite of their deficiencies, the Sixers have too much talent to look like a team with no other options. Do they look like a team that is missing their best defender and point guard? Sure. But they also look like a team that is in need of a reinvention. The Celtics aren’t going anywhere in the coming years. Stevens just signed a contract extension, and Brown has now lost six of the seven playoff games in which he’s faced him.