October 24, 2018
If you'd have told Sixers fans they'd get 63 combined points from Joel Embiid and JJ Redick, a solid performance from Markelle Fultz, and a nice offensive game from Robert Covington against the Detroit Pistons, most would assume they hopped on their flight to Milwaukee with a victory. That assumption, obviously, would have been wrong.
The 133-132 loss to the Pistons was of a more infuriating variety than the defeat they suffered against the Boston Celtics on opening night, as the Sixers had the game in their hands throughout the late stages of the game. They have the best player in the matchup, and they even got a boost from the return of Mike Muscala, who helped fill out what has been a thin rotation.
But for various reasons, the Sixers ended up on the losing side of the equation in Detroit. And we can start searching for fault on the sideline, where the head coach is squarely in the crosshairs after some odd decisions.
People who yell, "FIRE BRETT BROWN!" after every tough loss get so little traction because eventually, they become the boys (and girls) who cried wolf. No one cares when you have legitimate criticism when you're not capable of sifting through real issues and separating those from contextual problems.
Some of the issues lumped into the Brown basket against Detroit are decidedly not his fault. Out of a timeout with time running down in the fourth quarter, the Sixers wanted to get a quick shot up to preserve the two-for-one opportunity they had in front of them. And they did just that, generating a wide-open look for Joel Embiid that he happened to miss.
You want your franchise player to have a chance to win games, particularly when they're in the middle of a big-time performance as Embiid was. If Embiid didn't have a chance to influence the game in the home stretch or had to fight hard on his own without his coach drawing up a look, it's one thing. That wasn't the issue here.
But rotational decisions made by Brown loomed large in the fourth quarter and overtime. The biggest of all was not hard for anyone to point out — in the midst of one of his best, most confident performances as a pro, Markelle Fultz was told to sit the bench for the majority of the fourth quarter and all of overtime.
This was the time to give Fultz a chance to sink or swim in big minutes. Without Simmons, you could put the ball in his hands and let him feel comfortable running the offense, and you have a player who can actually be used as an offensive weapon, in contrast to the man who took his place.
With due respect to T.J. McConnell's heart and tenure, he brought little to the table in the guts of the game. McConnell proponents offered that his defense was an upgrade over Fultz, but he gave back any advantage there on the other end of the floor.
The more glaring error — at least for this writer — came on the final defensive possession. Brown inserted Amir Johnson into the game to guard the inbounds and switch, but there was too much time to have him responsible Griffin on the perimeter, and it was no shock when Griffin dusted him en route to the basket, where Robert Covington ended up picking up a foul that looked pretty questionable on replay.
Blake Griffin with 50 points, 14 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 block and the gamewinner! pic.twitter.com/w0hW5mc7V4— BATTLES NBA™ (@BattlesNBA) October 24, 2018
He never should have been in a position to pick it up in the first place. With a full roster of players to choose from, Brown likely turns to guys like Ben Simmons and Wilson Chandler to guard a last-minute possession and they don't run into this problem. But even with the hand he was dealt, Brown misplayed his cards, and Johnson should have been nowhere near that play.
Of course, sometimes you can play your cards correctly and have your ass handed to you on a tough river card. Brett Brown has to be able to trust Dario Saric to knock down shots when they're presented to him, or else he doesn't have a ton to offer this Sixers team.
That was the case for all of the preseason and the regular season to date, and it was definitely the case on Tuesday night. Saric shot 5/16 from the field (including 2/11 from three) and got absolutely deep fried by Blake Griffin. Saric offered very little resistance on Griffin in the first half, and you could argue was the primary culprit in allowing Griffin to get going in the first place.
But Brown is going to ride it out with Saric because of all the reasons you'd expect — he's a competitor, he has come up big in tough spots before (see: Game 5 in Boston last year), and because the roster for Tuesday night didn't have a lot of alternatives.
That doesn't excuse Saric for coming up small. The final play of regulation certainly wasn't drawn up for him, but once Embiid and JJ Redick made their reads in their usual DHO by the elbow, Saric became an obvious release valve. You're not going to get a much cleaner look on an end-game possession barring a defensive breakdown, and he has to be counted on to make shots like these.
In fact, I'd go so far to say that the Sixers are pretty screwed if he can't hit these shots. The Sixers are typically down a shooter in crunch time because of Simmons' presence, Joel Embiid does his best work closer to the basket, and Markelle Fultz in his current form takes shooting off the table to a degree. With the ball out of his hands even more these days thanks to Fultz's addition to the lineup, Saric also can't influence the game as much as a passer, which minimizes his value further.
Is it unfair to put extra pressure on role players because some of your brightest talent isn't offering a critical skill? Perhaps. But that's how this team is currently constructed, and his performance so far this year — 33 percent from the field, 25 percent from three — is not going to cut it.
(As an aside: there were a few people who complained Brown didn't design sets for his guys "closer to the basket" toward the end of the game, noting the Sixers didn't need threes in any of their clutch moments. This is some of the same logic that causes people to complain about running the ball more in a football game in 2018. The bigger issue is execution rather than the generation of wide-open looks for top-end guys in your rotation, particularly when you're in search of a two-for-one and time is of the essence. Brown was plenty at fault in the closing moments of regulation, but creating wide-open shots for his players isn't one of them.)
We don't need to pick apart McConnell's flaws as a player, but there was one sequence in overtime where I thought he failed in his responsibility as the team's point guard, and brought even further attention to the decision to play him over Fultz.
The Sixers got a stop with around 40 seconds to play, and possession was in the hands of their backup point. After fending off a swipe at the ball, McConnell pushed the ball up the floor with 38 seconds to play and 14 seconds between the shot and game clock. This is a classic two-for-one situation if the Sixers had looked up to recognize it.
They did not, and McConnell dribbled about 10 seconds off the shot clock before the Sixers really began to run any offense. Philadelphia settled for a terrible Redick jumper when they did, and took a transition foul on the ensuing rebound that put Reggie Jackson on the line. The only reason they ended up getting the two for one is that Redick took that foul and gifted Detroit two points at the line.
The argument for playing McConnell here rests on trusting him implicitly to take care of the obvious, which is exactly what this sequence falls under. Brown's aversion to calling a timeout here puts the responsibility in the hands of his players, most importantly the guy with the ball in his hands facing the shot clock.
If experience was supposed to aid the Sixers here, it never showed up. Add that onto McConnell being a complete non-entity in the extra session — he missed his only shot attempt and paired a lone assist with a turnover — and it's not hard to figure out why fans yelled for Fultz's inclusion.
It's unlikely most of this becomes relevant, by the way, if the Sixers' best players came through in some smaller moments throughout the fourth quarter. Brilliant though Embiid and Redick were, they missed crucial opportunities to put the game away or at least alter the course of the game in regulation.
None stick out quite like the technical free throw Redick shot with under a minute to play and the score tied. It was a complete gift created by an obvious Embiid flop to draw a technical foul on Andre Drummond, and there are few more reliable free-throw shooters than Redick in the league. But he bricked it, his first miss from the charity stripe so far this season.
Embiid wasn't exactly on his game in the fourth quarter either, going 2/7 from the field and missing a pair of free throws late that loomed large in the outcome.
As far as close losses go, this is one I believe deserves a little less outrage than most. When you're missing your second best player and one of your opponents has one of the best games they'll ever play, it's going to be tough to win on any given night. But with expectations higher this season, the Sixers aren't going to have as many of these type of games excused as they did in years past, and they won't reach their goals without executing better in the game's biggest spots.
The Sixers head to Milwaukee for a back-to-back on Wednesday, so they don't have time to dwell on this one. Everyone, from the head coach through the backup point guard, needs to be better if they expect to get a win against a more talented Bucks team.
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