Well, viewers have had a chance to digest the abomination that the Sixers put forth in the second game of their first round series with the Celtics. The Philadelphia 76ers, the team that was “built for the playoffs”, were looking to avoid a 3-0 deficit in the series. As every NBA fan knows, a 3-0 deficit in a playoff series is a death sentence.
Before we take a look at how they fared:
Brett Brown, who thinks he can defy the literal definition of insanity, elected to revert his previous lineup exchange. Horford was back in the lineup, replacing Thybulle. Maybe it would work this time?
Brown finally decided to bring the rim-anchoring big up to contest the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. The Boston ball-handlers weren’t able to turn corners around the screens and penetrate, electing to kick back out to the perimeter and reset the play. The issue, of course, became that the Sixers defended as if they had gotten the stop once the ball-handler was thwarted. They defended with nervousness, but that desperation ultimately hurt their decision-making on the defensive end. They started defensive possessions off well, but ultimately afforded Boston looks at the rim. As has become a common theme in this series (and in the Brett Brown era), the Sixers do not do the little things well. Amongst those little things is completing defensive possessions and getting necessary stops.
Can’t Win If You’re Not Aggressive
Al Horford opened the game far too aggressive on the defensive side of the ball. On the opening possession, he overplayed Jaylen Brown in the corner and was beat backdoor for a dunk. A few possessions later, he lept across a screen in an effort to contest a deep triple from Jaylen Brown and knocked down two Celtics. One, of course, was the shooter. Three free throws. The league’s best three-point shooters still miss over 50 percent of their attempts. There’s no reason to close-out a 38.2 percent three-point shooter with that much momentum, especially if he’s at least two steps beyond the arc.
Not Perturbed By Misses
Tobias Harris was noticeably more aggressive early in this affair. While he was not reaping the rewards of his attempts, he was not shying away from scores. He was looking to push the pace in transition with the ball in his hands and was seeking opportunities to get downhill. Physically, he used his frame to create space in the post, bumping smaller post defenders, such as Marcus Smart, out of his way to get within a step of the rim for scores. Perhaps most encouraging of all was his increased willingness to draw contact and get to the free throw line.
Heart Is Immeasurable
Philadelphia finally played with some passion–something that was sorely lacking in the first two contests. The Sixers settled themselves down late in the first period and began to, dare I say, make winning plays. The two teams combined for 34 missed shots in the first frame, but the Sixers held the Celtics to just 3 offensive rebounds.
Philly also helped themselves on the offensive end, committing just 1 turnover in the first twelve minutes. Josh Richardson dove on the floor for a loose ball, while Horford was called for an aggressive loose ball foul. While minimal in the eyes of some viewers, those small things are indicative of a team that has fight. While no one is in the business of moral victories, the vibe around the fanbase the last 48 hours has been that the most disappointing thing about the team’s current state was their lack of fight. That sentiment was especially disappointing considering the team’s “bully ball” marketing campaign that has served as the root of 76ers’ ticket salespeople’s phone-to-phone solicitations since last July.
Welcome to 2020
You have to sit back and laugh, honestly. In the middle of the regular season, the biggest gripe with Brett Brown and the Sixers was that they attempted way too many threes for a team that wasn’t especially consistent from deep. Oh, the number of tweets I have scrolled past crucifying them for taking so many threes (and Sixers Twitter was actually right). Of course, now the issue is that the Sixers’ most capable shooters are not attempting enough triples. Up until approximately the 8-minute mark, when Shake Milton buried a triple from the right wing, Embiid was the only one to contribute a made three-pointer.
You Cannot Make Shots If You Don’t Shoot
Harris, Josh Richardson, and Shake Milton combined for 0-for-4 from deep prior to Milton’s make. While Harris evidently has lost all confidence in his ability to hit from beyond the arc, there are three significant negatives of him seeking to bully smaller defenders down to the middle of the lane every possession.
One, the potential of converting a two-point basket on a contested mid-range or close jumper is less valuable than the potential of converting a three-point basket attempted with space. Second, Harris is obviously more vulnerable to questionable fouls trying to bulldoze defenders into the hardwoods. Third, even if the defender is smaller, all of that work needed to get close to the basket from the post is inevitably going to wear any human down. As poorly as Harris has played in this series, I think it’s safe to say that everyone would prefer that a not exhausted Harris is on the floor when the clock strikes crunch time.
Which Sword Are You Prepared To Die On?
Richardson, as you should’ve come to realize, is about as hot-and-cold from deep as any guard in the NBA. Nonetheless, you want him coming off screens as a ball-handler with the intent of shooting from deep. Asking ‘why’ is perfectly reasonable. I would answer that Richardson launching from deep out of screens is just as (un)productive as him snaking around the court and losing his dribble.
As Brett Brown would say, deciding whether you would prefer a 34 percent three-point shooter chucking from deep upon clearing a screen or an unnatural ball-handler with spotty court vision turning the rock over is a choice of “which sword are you prepared to die on?”. The difference is that one might result in three points for the Sixers, while the other results in live-ball turnovers, which is basically a two-point deposit for the opponent.
Neither Harris nor Richardson has been particularly trustworthy from deep. But the Sixers need to attempt 20 triples in each half to keep pace with the modern game, and Embiid shouldn’t be the one taking a majority of the attempts.
Shake Milton’s Shoes Are Way Too Big
The idea to bring Milton into the lineup was a good one. His performance in the first three months of the season certainly warranted greater involvement in the rotation. His insertion into the starting unit was a different flavor to a struggling offense. But, as has been evident through three games, Milton has been asked to do far too much on both ends of the court. He has split primary ball-handler duties with Richardson and is even creating some offense off the dribble.
The problem is that he is not nearly strong enough with the ball to maintain possession in a crowd. As soon as he approaches the teeth of the defense, he is outmuscled and swallowed. Turnovers or wild layup attempts ensue. There was even a play in game two in which the late second round pick was charged with attempting a multi-pivot fadeaway jumper from the baseline over a bigger defender. That is far too much responsibility, and I think his shot selection has suffered as a result of having such a significant role in the offense.
His role should be reduced to far less ad-libbed playmaking and more spot-up shooting. Defensively, he is entirely over-matched. He does not have the lateral quickness to match speeds with players like Kemba Walker. He is not strong enough to front off wings like Tatum and Brown. I’m not sure there’s a viable solution to that problem, and, quite frankly, it’s not a surprising problem. It’s a byproduct of counting so heavily on young players. If you’re starting a second-year guard that you drafted at the very end of the second round, and a three-month sample was the resume he put forth to earn that spot in the starting unit, you likely don’t have any other winning options.
It seems the Sixers finally broke Marc Zumoff. A season of disappointment has finally gotten the better of him. Kemba Walker walked into an open triple in transition that gave the Celtics a four-point lead. Zumoff, whether by accident or on purpose, let out a conservative “YES!” on the make. While not a big deal to some, we usually hear the “YES!” come on a Sixers’ made basket. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard Zumoff grant the opposition a signature call, and so obviously I looked up and let a slight grin cross my face. Refreshing to know that even GOATs make mistakes.
Despite Embiid committing his fourth foul early in the third frame, the Sixers hung extremely tough. They trailed by four points heading into the final frame. Of course, life and death as they pertain to this season came down to the final quarter.
Life or Death?
What better way to set the tone to a make-or-break quarter by starting Matisse Thybulle for his first minutes since the first half. Sure, you need wing defense out there to counter a smaller Boston lineup. But, anticipation–both on and off the court–is key to winning games in the NBA. The Sixers opted to go ultra small late in the third quarter, giving Mike Scott some run. As it becomes more and more obvious that the game will be competitive heading into the final period of regulation, it would make sense to give Thybulle some minutes in the third quarter so that he’s not dusting off cob webs with the game hanging in the balance.
Early in this game story, I wrote extensively of Milton having too many responsibilities. While I full-heartedly believe that to be the case, his evolution as a playmaker is evident when he gets downhill in space. Milton converted a pair of very tough finishes because of the amount of space he had in the lane once clearing the ball-screen. The next step in his development will be to be stronger with the basketball when he attacks the heart of congestion.
After the game, I asked Embiid about Milton’s evolution in the playoffs: “He’s been better every single game,” the three-time all-star center said. “His evolution from game one to game three, you can tell he’s learning everything on the fly and getting better. He’s doing a great job of setting everything up.”
The Sixers finally broke through with defensive rotations late in this game. There were a number of sequences in which Embiid and Horford recovered on broken transition plays using on-court communication. Doing something as minimal as communicating prevented transition scores. While it may very well be too late, the Sixers finally showed a glimpse of what that smothering twin tower defense can look like. Unfortunately, and perhaps a significant indictment on the coach, it took the brink of proverbial death to show the defensive vision that the Sixers sold themselves on last summer.
Daniel Theis has never committed a foul in his life. Just ask him. Despite his incessant arguing over every single call, the big man fouled out with roughly three minutes remaining in the contest. The entire city of Philadelphia jumped on Embiid’s back and chewed their fingernails to the cuticle. The game ultimately came down to the final two minutes. Could Embiid bully Enes Kanter more than the Boston wings could outscore Philadelphia’s entire closing lineup?
The Final Blow
The knockout punch came on back-to-back offensive possessions between the two-minute mark and the one-minute mark. Philadelphia’s offense became too predictable, and the Celtics sent hard doubles as soon as the ball went into Joel Embiid. Boston forced a pair of Embiid live-ball turnovers and converted on the offensive end. The Celtics closed the game on a 10-0 run.
Death it was.
Following the game, Embiid expressed some frustration over those two crucial possessions: “I thought I got fouled on the first one. They didn’t call it. It’s whatever. On the second one, I thought I got better passing out of the double-team. It happened, I turned the ball over. It sucks, but you move on and you learn from it.”
Keeping the Series Alive
After the game, a clearly down-but-not-out Brett Brown talked of his mindset. “I feel bad for the players,” Brown said. “The historical reference to the daunting task at hand, we get. Finding a win is on my mind. Wins change everything–mindset and circumstance. I’m not rolling over. I understand the implication is that we’re down 3-0. We’re going to come out and play to win. It’s not to dust off for pride purposes, it’s to keep the series alive.”
Embiid echoed that sentiment: “It sucks [going down 0-3], but you can’t give up. We can do it. Tonight, we couldn’t make a shot. Defensively, we did a good job. Made some mistakes in the fourth that we can correct. We gotta keep fighting and playing hard. I don’t want to be swept. I don’t want that in my resume.”
Regarding his future with the Sixers, Brown remained realistic and professional: “I don’t, I really don’t [think about my job security]. My effort is to try to find a win and try to keep this series alive. I owe that to my players.”
Philadelphia will try to avoid the series sweep on Sunday in a matinee affair on ABC. Tip-off is 1 PM, EST.