Now is probably not the proper time to litigate Brett Brown’s future. The Sixers still have at least one more game remaining in their season. As recently as Sunday, they had a three-point fourth-quarter lead on Toronto and were eight minutes of game clock away from going up 3-1 in the series. Take just one or two of a whole series of if-onlys and switch them in the opposite direction and the Sixers are taking their home court on Thursday night with another chance to advance to their first Eastern Conference Finals in 18 years.
If only Tobias Harris shoots 4-of-13 instead of 2-of-13 from three-point range …
If only Kawhi Leonard is just a little less automatic when given even an inch to shoot …
If only the Sixers hit just a few more of their free throws …
That’s not the way the world works, of course. For every cursed hypothetical for the Sixers to rue, there is one that would be haunting the opposite side. The point is simply that a path to victory exists, which we know because we have seen it, which is more than you could say about the Sixers in last year’s conference semifinals, when their one victory felt more like a forestalling of the inevitable than a legitimizing event.
Say what you will about their inadequacies this postseason — and, for sure, they have been legion — the Sixers have handily defeated the Raptors in two of this series’ five games, and the’ve played them close to even in a third, a score that isn’t much different than the one on the opposite side. Somewhere, there is a Joel Embiid who scored 33 points and blocked five shots in Game 3. Somewhere, there is a Sixers defense that held the Raptors to 89 points in Game 2. They might feel like an illusory oasis of a fever dream after the drubbing that Toronto put on them in Game 5, but they were quite real. They happened.
Despite their offensive impotence, despite their misfortune at being on the other side of one of the great postseason scoring performances of all time, despite the David Fincher-level disappearances of their two young stars, it is difficult to leave the Sixers for dead yet.
As Brown said Wednesday in a conference call looking ahead to Game 6, “I think that we have shown we have the ability to play good basketball. We have shown we have the ability to beat the Toronto Raptors.”
At the same time, there is a reason they make these things best-out-of-seven, and there is a reason the team that is behind heading into Game 6 ends up winning the series less than 20 percent of the time. Leonard has obliterated any thought that he isn’t far and away the best player on the court. The list of players who have finished a postseason averaging 31-plus points in 10-plus games is exactly 17 players long. In the last 30 years, only Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant have done it.
Through 10 games this postseason, Leonard is averaging 31.2 points. His .574 field goal percentage would be the third-best mark all-time in a postseason of 31-plus points per game. (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shot .607 in 1976-77 and Bernard King shot .574 in 1983-84.)
The Sixers optimist might have spent the first part of the series thinking that, mathematically speaking, Leonard could not possibly continue to be as good as he was heading into Game 5. The realist would have noted that any regression was likely to coincide with at least one or two of his Raptors teammates removing their heads out of their own behinds. On Tuesday, that is what we saw. We also saw Ben Simmons attempt just five shots, another bit of evidence that his inability to score outside of the paint has been and will continue to be the single greatest obstacle preventing the Sixers offense from operating at a championship level.
As for Brown …
When these things happen, they often happen fast, so it is at least worth acknowledging that we could be entering the final day of his six-year tenure in the city. If that is indeed the case — if the Sixers’ season ends in Game 6 and the owners Brown to the standard they set when they declared that they expected to advance further in the playoffs than last year — he will leave having coached more games than any of his 14 predecessors, going all the way back to Billy Cunningham.
Granted, there is no guarantee that the Sixers take the typical route. It wouldn’t — or shouldn’t — surprise anybody if they let Brown twist in the wind for a week while deliberating something that, according to their public comments, should already be decided. This is an organization that took more than a week to fire its general manager, and then went an entire offseason before hiring his replacement.