KISSIMMEE, Fla. – The 76ers find themselves in a world in flux.
That became evident after they were swept by the Boston Celtics in the best-of-seven first-round playoff series. The Celtics capped the sweep with a 110-106 Game 4 victory Sunday afternoon at The Field House.
The loss marked the first time the Sixers have been swept in the first round since 1989 and the third time in their history. In 1989, it was by the New York Knicks in a best-of-five series.
“It was just a weird season,” center Joel Embiid said. “One we can all look at and have a lot of regrets.”
For one, the Sixers were bombarded by injuries. They didn’t even have a full roster in the playoff series. The Sixers were without Ben Simmons (left knee surgery), their best defender. And they missed Glenn Robinson III (oblique muscle strain), another key defender.
But even with Simmons and Robinson, there’s no guarantee the Sixers would have gotten out of the first round.
The major question going forward is: Who’s going to be their coach next season?
The Sixers are expected to fire Brett Brown soon because of the team failing to live up to lofty expectations.
It appears the players realize the team needs a new voice.
“He’s a good guy. He’s a good man. He means well,” Josh Richardson said. “I just think, going forward, he’s gotta have some more accountability.
“I don’t think there was much accountability this season, and I think that was part of our problem.”
Embiid was asked if it was fair for people to question Brown’s future despite all the team’s injuries. The three-time All-Star didn’t exactly give his coach a ringing endorsement.
“I’m not the [general manager],” he said. “I don’t make the decisions. All I know is that we have a great organization, a bunch of great people outside of basketball.
“I never judge people based on basketball. I judge them based on how great of a person they are. In the organization, I think we got amazing people from the owners, management, coaching staff to security of the team, the training, we got a bunch of great people.”
Brown didn’t want to address his seven-year tenure as the Sixers’ coach, saying his thoughts were with the game and the series vs. Boston. He did, however, mention the season was riddled with an abundance of injuries.
“This season was a challenge trying to put people where they should have been placed,” Brown said.
The coach liked his decision to move Simmons, the two-time All-Star point guard, to power forward during the NBA restart. Brown felt it showed Simmons’ versatility before he was lost to the team with a temporary partial dislocation of his left kneecap on Aug. 5.
“Ending with Ben’s injury this year, you just really never felt you jumped into a routine and rhythm,” he said. “That’s probably the thought that would linger the most.”
But after the scrimmage games that preceded the seeding games, Simmons looked out of sorts at his new position. Plus, he wasn’t the solid defender he was before a pinched nerve in his lower back sidelined him for the final eight games before the shutdown.
Simmons’ back and knee represent a small fraction of the injuries Brown has dealt with during his tenure. Asked if people ever got to see him at his coaching best due to that, he responded, “No.”
Asked to elaborate, Brown responded, “No. Thank you for asking the question.”
Finding a new coach is far from the team’s only problem.
The Eastern Conference figures to be more competitive next season. The Milwaukee Bucks will remain a contender. The Toronto Raptors, Celtics, Miami Heat, and Indiana Pacers will still be solid. And the Brooklyn Nets will be improved with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant healthy.
Meanwhile, the Sixers could be a seventh-place team with more than $400 million tied up in Embiid, Simmons, Al Horford, and Harris over the next several seasons.
That reality has led to criticism of second-year general manager Elton Brand.
But one can argue that the Sixers’ moves weren’t all Brand’s responsibility, especially in an organization where decisions are made collaboratively.
In Sunday’s game, Boston’s Kemba Walker showed why he’s a perennial All-Star, finishing with a game-high 32 points, 4 assists, and 2 blocks.
Embiid led the Sixers with 30 points and 10 rebounds. Tobias Harris showed a lot of heart. The forward, who finished with 20 points, returned to the game after suffering a left-eye laceration.
Things got scary with 2 minutes, 40 seconds left in the third quarter when Harris suffered the cut. He received stitches, was evaluated for a concussion, and returned with 5:12 left in the game.
“I felt OK enough to go back out there,” Harris said of returning. “I tried to do something to try to help us win. I’d rather go down with my guys than sitting in the back. That’s really the main reason why.”
Harris suffered the injury when he was undercut while in the air defending on a play. His face smashed hard against the floor as he couldn’t react fast enough.
He was down on the floor for a couple of minutes, while several members of the Sixers staff attended to him, including Brown. Harris eventually walked off the court with a towel on his face and went straight to the locker room.
“I’m still in some pain with his,” Harris said. “It was a hard fall for sure, obviously, I got stitched up and my ribs are kind of affecting me. The big thing is kind of how I am going to be feeling tomorrow morning. I’m hoping and praying for the best.”
That appeared to take some life out of the Sixers.
Boston scored nine straight points after the fall to complete a 12-0 run to end the quarter and entered the fourth quarter with an 89-77 lead.
The Celtics went to take a commanding 17-point cushion before the Sixers closed the gap in what could be Brown’s last game.
If so, Embiid will remember him as “a great guy. He’s an even better person than a coach. He cares about his players. He cares about people that work with him. He’s beyond basketball.
“No matter what happens, I don’t make the decisions of what’s going to happen. I trust management. I know that he’s going to be a great friend no matter what.”