The Nets had cut a 13-point lead to one at halftime and Brett Brown had seen enough.
He spewed profane invective to describe his displeasure at the poor execution of his defensive game plan, much of it directed at his sensitive second-year point guard, Ben Simmons.
About time. And it worked. Maybe Brown’s tirade will have a lasting affect on the team, which would have a lasting affect on his tenure. It has to, because, as he knows, he can’t return to that well.
“You’ve got about so many bullets a year,” Brown said. “It’s a small handful. So much of any leadership role is the temperance and the judgment ... the read on your locker room and your players of when you use a bullet.”
That makes sense, but Brown has had the safety on his weapon for six years. He might have scolded previous teams, and he might have been distressed at this assemblage earlier this season, but no one can recall a tongue-lashing like Monday night’s.
For too long, Brown has coached teams of headstrong players with far too much deference. For too long he has worried as much about The Process as The Play. Now, perhaps because of that, Brown’s job is on the line. He might have saved it Monday night.
If anything, The Process has betrayed Brown. Twice in the past six weeks, Sixers owner Josh Harris has declined to guarantee Brown’s job beyond this spring. Harris made it plain that he expects this reinforced roster to exceed last season’s feat of reaching the second round of the playoffs and at least play in the Eastern Conference Final. First-year general manager Elton Brand, who was preceded by Brown but whose power seems to be growing daily, was more explicit: “My goal and my expectation is to definitely get past where we got last year.”
It could not be plainer: Win, or clear out your desk.
This is patently unfair to Brown. He entered these playoffs having coached his starting five in just 10 of a possible 27 games, mainly due to Joel Embiid’s lingering knee injury. But there it is. So, at halftime, up by one point but down one game-to-none in a first-round playoff series against a No. 6 seed, Brown had nothing to lose.
So he lost it.
“He expressed it,” Simmons said Wednesday as the Sixers prepared leave for Brooklyn and Game 3 on Thursday night. “He called me out a few times, where I messed up on plays, and yelled at me."
"I love to see that side of him, because it motivates me. It gives me the energy.”
Simmons was tasked with defending Nets guard D’Angelo Russell, who had scored 42 points in the first six quarters of the first-round playoff series, 26 in the Nets’ Game 1 win. Russell was scoreless in the third quarter. He got off only two shots.
Simmons’ performance serves as the backbone of a defensive clinic that spurred the Sixers’ 51-point third quarter, which tied a 57-year-old Lakers record for the most points in a playoff quarter. The Sixers allowed just 23 points. They were on fire, but Brown downplayed the brimstone.
“They do let me coach them," said Brown. "It wasn’t anything that dramatic. It was just highlighting the truth.”
Right ... except, this time, the highlights were R-rated.
“Shocked me a little bit, to tell the truth,” said hardcore forward Jimmy Butler, who must have relished the moment.
Butler’s criticism of Timberwolves teammates Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins precipitated his trade to the Sixers in November. When he arrived in Philadelphia, he might have recognized a similar culture.
To be fair, in his six seasons coaching The Process, Brown -- himself a first-time NBA head coach -- has seldom been in the position to demand much from his team. For the first three seasons, it was built to lose. In the last three seasons, it was building to this moment, its main objective nurturing Simmons, an All-Star, and Embiid, an MVP candidate. The NBA’s not the CYO. You’re not only coaching players; you’re coaching agents and shoe-company reps and entourages and families.
So, there was virtually no accountability. Every misplay, every misstep, every misspoken word was excused by their youth. They were like princelings, nursed through the pitfalls of the NBA.
They’ll suckle no more.
“He definitely inspired us. He was just on us to play better -- to be more locked in, and more focused," said Tobias Harris, who has played for five NBA teams and has heard coaching tirades in every time zone. "The way he talked to us got us locked in and more focused. Coach does a really good job of understanding personalities and how you can reach a guy at different times.”
Did he use his bullet with Simmons & Co. in time to save his job?
“He used it at a perfect time,” Simmons said.