There was a moment early in the fourth quarter when the impossibility of the Sixers' task came into full view. They were 40 minutes into a series in which they did not seem to stand a chance, and yet they had bullied their way into a classic playoff dogfight. After a sloppy first half, they'd scored 13 consecutive points at the end of the third quarter to seize the lead, and the Celtics suddenly looked like a team that might be had. To have them, though, the Sixers would need to maximize every possession, and that would require them to avoid giving them away like they had in the game's early going.
Problem was, the Sixers didn't have a point guard on the court. They had a guy who they say is their point guard, so perhaps this is a matter of semantics, but they did not have a guy who could consistently dribble across half court and encounter a defender without curling into a shell. Four minutes into the fourth quarter, with the Sixers trailing by two, that is what Shake Milton did. Blanketed by a defender a couple of feet behind the three-point line, he picked up his dribble and tried to make an off-balance pass, and soon the ball was going the other way.
If this were a different team, in different circumstances, with a different track record, you could have written this off as an isolated incident in a game where any number of plays could have made the difference. But the Sixers are a team that has spent much of the season trying to find a competent ballhandler to run the offense when Ben Simmons isn’t on the court, and it seems relevant that a 109-101 loss in Game 1 of the playoffs brought more of the same.
The disheartening thing is that, from a holistic standpoint, the Sixers played about as well as you could have hoped. They’d entered the night facing heavy odds, both in the series and in its opening game. There was a path to victory, sure, but it was a narrow one, with a steep grade. Even the most veteran of Sherpas might have thought for a moment and then returned to his drink.
Brett Brown’s contract says that he doesn’t have that option, and so he dressed his coaching staff in their finest oxford shirts and their dark blue jeans and they forged ahead on the only trail available to them. The Sixers came out of the gates looking like a team that knew exactly what it needed to do. And they did it. Joel Embiid took advantage of Daniel Theis, Tobias Harris and Al Horford sought out their mismatches, and the shots went where they are supposed to go.
The problem with the formula that the Sixers were executing is that it would eventually require a competent ballhandler to offset the adjustments the Celtics would inevitably make. That the Sixers do not have such a thing is not Milton’s fault. He was drafted a shooting guard, and shooting is the one thing that he has done reasonably well over his first two seasons in the NBA. If his name was Gary or Troy instead of Shake, we might laugh at the notion that he can make plays off the bounce. At the same time, when you look at the other options, you can almost understand Brett Brown’s delusion.
This is a poorly constructed basketball team, and maybe it would be less so with Simmons healthy and playing up to his potential. But as it stands now, the Sixers will need to be nearly perfect in order to make this a series, and that’s a tough ask. The Sixers finished with 11 more turnovers than the Celtics. They allowed 16 offensive rebounds. They shot 9-of-27 from three-point range.
“The story of the game to me still isn’t difficult to speak of,” Brown said. “Twenty-one points off our turnovers, 16 off our rebounds. You can’t minimize the fact that losing stinks, but I feel like there are answers to the questions of why.”
That’s an optimistic way of looking at things. The turnover issue can certainly be fixed -- many of them originated in the post, and the Sixers cleaned them up in the second half. But there are also structural issues with this team that Brown has been unable to solve all season. And those issues magnify the importance of perfection on each possession.
The Sixers’ size will continue to be an issue for the Celtics. But the modern NBA is a perimeter game for a reason. It’s the most consistent way to generate offense, and the fastest way to score in bulk. The Sixers simply do not have a set of weapons on the perimeter that allows them to play the fast, loose style that defined this team during the first couple of years of the Embiid-Simmons partnerships.
That magnifies mistakes like the one that occurred at the end of the third quarter. Instead of putting the ball in Alec Burks’ hands with 27 seconds left in the third quarter, Josh Richardson was the one dribbling down the shot clock for the final shot, a possession that ended in predictable fashion (a contested midrange pull-up from no-man’s land that clanked off the rim).