“Built for the playoffs”, huh? On Sunday afternoon, the Sixers took the court in a life-or-death fourth game in their first round series against the Celtics. The Sixers were looking to avoid being swept in the series. The fans, who have been yo-yoed around by this franchise for far too long, were hopeful that the misery would come to an end today. A sweep, and even a series loss, would likely spell Brett Brown of his head coaching duties. To go down in such a disappointing fashion in the first round of the playoffs, after two consecutive seasons of progress, would likely result in the dismissal of the braintrusts in the front office, as well.
For the first time ever, I have no contextual notes for you today. So, to the game we go. Brace yourselves.
No matter how bad the fans wanted them to, the Sixers did not want to roll over and quit in this game. They continued to fight on the offensive end, and they were making Boston work for everything on the defensive end. That sense of desperation and a clear desire to remain alive resulted in more crisp play. The Sixers committed just a single turnover in the first half, and only allowed Boston four offensive rebounds. They stayed true to those core metrics, and outshot Boston 39-37 before halftime.
Adding A Different Flavor To The Offense
Brett Brown evidently got the memo that his offense was unbelievably repetitive. It’s really no surprise that the offense is repetitive when you consider that Brown favors unstructured offensive schemes over set plays. He prefers to let things unfold naturally, as opposed to spewing directives and bogging down his players’ minds with a heavy playbook. So, when the team desperately needs to win a game, and it’s crunch time, the natural tendency of the players on the court will always be to defer to the star.
That’s why, with the Sixers trailing 2-0 in the series and holding a two-point lead with less than three minutes to play in regulation, the offense consisted entirely of Embiid post-ups into face-ups. At a time when basketball concepts go down the drain in the minds of unproven, unsure players, offensive structures were completely necessary. Brad Stevens, who knows he must implement structures because his players are not pre-made champions, is willing to shout directives. Recognizing the homogeneity of Philly’s offense late in game three, sent hard doubles towards Embiid to make him pass the ball. Those instructions ignited a 10-0 Boston run to close the win out and put the Sixers on death’s doorstep.
So, in game 4, Brown finally opted to mix things up a bit. The Sixers ran numerous pin-down plays for Embiid to curl into elbow jumpers. The more-balanced utility of the sometimes-fatally flawed superstar left the Celtics a bit unsure of how to defend, and the Sixers committed fewer turnovers as a result.
The Cause of Tobias Harris’ Struggles
Part of the reason that Tobias Harris has struggled so mightily in this series and, to a lesser extent, his first full season in Philly, is the fact that Embiid requires post touches. This season, when Joel Embiid is on the floor (with or without Horford), Harris has a true shooting percentage of 51.5. With Embiid off the floor (with or without Horford), Harris’ true shooting value balloons to 57.8 percent. With Embiid on the floor, Harris has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.32; playing without Embiid on the floor, that ratio improves to 2.11. In case you were wondering about sample size, Harris averages more minutes played without Embiid than he does minutes with Embiid.
The need to get Embiid strong-side positioning in the post brings a help defender into Harris’ path to the basket. For someone who isn’t particularly athletic or quick, that help defender in the lane makes it impossible for him to attack the rim. With that being the case, his ability to slash and be versatile with the ball in his hands is limited.
Spreading The Floor
Consider the fact that he exhibited linear improvement up until he came to Philly at the trade deadline last season. His numbers as a shooter and overall scorer rose when he was traded to the Clippers. He was snubbed from the all-star game last season, pushing 21 points per game with a true shooting figure above 60 percent. Gandering at Harris’ breakout with the Clippers, the spacing and lack of heavy paint occupation of a big were why. The floor was consistently spread for Harris when the ball was in his hands. He was empowered to create his own offense. With that success, confidence grew. With better confidence, Harris knocked on the door of all-stardom.
Obviously, I’m not saying that the Sixers should’ve built more around Harris or that the offense should try to accommodate him. Before slandering Harris as a bench player worthy of only a mid-level exception, consider the context and do some research. He’s far better than what Philly fans have given him credit for.
Make no mistake, the Sixers are down 3-0 because of their own comically abysmal roster decisions and poor coaching. But, that doesn’t make it acceptable for the officials to take the series off, either. The officiating in this game was abhorrent, and it favored the team that was up 3-0. To be fair, it has been terrible throughout the bubble experience. But there is one thing that is worse than terrible calls (or non-calls). Showing up competitive athletes with technical fouls to back up their own terrible judgments with the whistle is reprehensible. There is no question in my mind that the lack of a hostile home-court environment has empowered officials to let the quality of their work slip. The league should be embarrassed.
The Loss of Tobias Harris Changed The Complexion Of The Game
Tobias Harris, with blood seemingly gushing from the corner of his left eyebrow, left the game after a violent fall on his head after getting caught in the air trying to make a contest at the rim. With the Sixers clearly shaken and deflated by the injury, Boston seized control. The Celtics closed the third quarter of play with a 12-0 run, leading by that amount heading into the fourth.
The Sixers tried to stave off elimination as long as they could. But the deficit, combined with the zapped energy following Harris’ injury, was too much. They could not seal the crack, and the Celtics seized control. Boston was able to keep a desperate Philly defense out of sorts, and the Celtics were able to keep the Sixers at bay with a handful of easy baskets at the rim.
Ultimately, the undermanned Sixers were not built for Boston’s wings. The team was unable to avoid a sweep. Coaching certainly wasn’t a strength in this series, but the outcome extends far deeper than the head coach. Brett Brown will be shown the door. But, that door should remain open for every individual in the front office with a say in decisions. The Philadelphia 76ers will embark on an offseason full of proverbial life-or-death decisions. The clock is ticking on the co-existence of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, and the renovations to come may rapidly reduce the timeline of that co-existence if the product doesn’t improve.