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May 04, 2018

Revisiting Brett Brown's major decisions from Sixers' crushing Game 2 loss

It has been quite some time since Brett Brown's most vocal critics have had ammunition to work with. The Sixers closed the regular season as the hottest team in basketball, and after a dominant five-game win over the Miami Heat in round one, the Sixers were being anointed as the new big thing in basketball, a potential threat to the Eastern Conference elite this season.

A pair of losses at TD Garden later — the team's first two-game losing streak since February 27, by the way — and suddenly everyone realizes how vulnerable this young team can be. Nothing has changed about their construction, their inexperience, or even the primary figures, only the results. And hey, this is a results business after all, much as we all enjoyed yucking it up about "The Process" over the last few years.

Brown, the man who has overseen all of it from the low of 10 wins to this year's high of 52, found himself caught in the crossfire after the brutal Game 2 defeat Philadelphia suffered at the hands of Boston. Deservedly so, I might add — his decisions or lack of decisions have contributed to the Sixers' 2-0 deficit, and his counterpart on the other bench has done the better job so far.

Unlike on a normal night, however, there were several specific details to point to as Brown mistakes or controversies, rather than empty platitudes like, "They shoot too many threes!" or "Richaun Holmes should play!" On Thursday, there were earnest points of debate regarding the job Brown is doing.

The decision: Not using a timeout with Boston coming back in the second quarter

The result: Boston cuts 22-point lead down to five before halftime

This was an absolute, unbelievable, spectacular failure on the part of the entire team. That starts with Brown, who made the decision to keep things rolling along without a forced stoppage as the Celtics erased most of the hard work the Sixers did to build a lead.

With 7:21 remaining in the second quarter, the Celtics called a timeout down 21 points and with the game looking like it was getting out of hand. There would not be another timeout called by either coach in the half, even as Boston got out in the open floor and broke Philadelphia's spirit with one tone-setting play after another. By the time Jaylen Brown threw down a dunk with less than 10 seconds left in the half, the halftime buzzer seemed like a miracle.

And yet with an opportunity to explain himself after the game, the head coach basically stuck to his guns on his broader decision-making process, mentioning the lack of timeout in the process.

I think the Celtics defensive intensity went to a higher level. I think somewhere at the five-minute mark and we brought Joel (Embiid) and JJ (Redick) back into the game in the second period. We give them credit. They went on a little run and then they went on another run I think at two minutes left. 

You know, you’re sitting there wondering about matchups, you’re thinking about timeouts, you’re thinking about all of it. And I feel like if I had to do it again, I would do the same thing. I would have had the same people in the game. Trying to, on the road, make sure you have an ample number of timeouts, you know it’s going to be a close game. That’s the decision I made.

This raised my eyebrows a bit, so I followed up with Brown on what the thinking was for him at that time. The continued explanation didn't do a whole lot for me, either:

You trust your veterans, I trust my players that they have shown that they can hold onto stuff, that they know how to stay organized, and they've shown that over the past third of the season. As we study this, it's easy for us to say, oh they went on that run, do you burn a timeout? When we study it and we sort of discuss it on a bench, we want to have stuff, I wish we had more at the end of a game as well.

And so I feel like when we started subbing we were going to be able to hold the fort, in retrospect we didn't. Would a timeout have fixed it? I don't think so, we can maybe second guess that. But by and large it's going into the game and trying to make sure you have enough at the end of the game also to manage it. You knew it was going to be a close game, the notion you were going to maintain a 20-point lead and walk out of the Boston Garden wasn't on my mind. I felt like what we did to them, they were going to do to us, runs were going to be had.

So when you bring Joel Embiid and JJ [Redick] back into the game, you've got sort of a stockpile of timeouts to use, that was my decision. And as I sit here, I'd do it again, I'll go back and look at the tape, and if it's something I would pivot out of I'll share it with everybody when I see you next.

The desire to preserve timeouts for an end of game situation is understandable, but you can't just completely disregard the need to slow down or break up runs as the game unfolds in the meantime. For timeouts to matter at the end of the game, your team has to be in a position to make winning plays as time left on the clock gets smaller and smaller.

And when you're playing in a hostile home arena like Boston, the last thing you want to do is to allow a team to pivot out of a massive deficit and get the building back on their side. For 1.5 quarters at TD Garden, the atmosphere was of the "Okay" variety Embiid claimed it was during Game 1, and had been all but taken out of the game. But a few threes and dunks later without anything done to stop the bleeding, and it was deafening in Boston's home arena. For a guy who has lauded Philadelphia's crowd for their ability to turn a game this season, Brown showed little understanding of how it could happen for an opponent.

It's not as if Brown is a stranger to using timeouts to his advantage in these situations. Throughout the regular season, Brown was happy to call an early timeout during an opponent's run and settle things down, and playing with a big lead was something they grew accustomed to this season. He has better sense than to completely ignore the building momentum in Boston and the impact of a crowd returning to life.

Even if he wasn't going to pull the trigger on a timeout early in the run, there were moments midstream that made perfect sense to shake things up. Al Horford came down with an offensive rebound in traffic with a little under two minutes to play, and the ensuing three from Terry Rozier brought the lead down to just 10 points. 

While the coach had waited that long and let over half the lead slip away, that was an obvious place to draw his line in the sand.

Perhaps an even better spot for it: 3:44 to play and with the Sixers up by 19. Embiid was caught completely off guard by an inbounds pass to Horford in the corner, and although the Sixers were not punished for it, the lack of awareness and urgency from the guy Brown says he trusted to keep things on the level absolutely warranted some guidance.

If it's not the right moment to step in when your best defensive player falls asleep on a simple play, when would it ever be? I guess once you let a moment like that go by without intervening, it's past the point of no return, but that feels like a severe miscalculation. 

Second-guessing the coach on decisions with the power of hindsight is typically cheap, but there were so many different opportunities for Brown to break glass in the event of an emergency, and he turned himself into a spectator instead. Add on that there were several fairly obvious moments to point to as inflection points, and this all adds up to not the finest moment for Brown.

The verdict: Wrong and obviously bad answer

The decision: Bringing Simmons back in for T.J. McConnell with 5:29 left

The result: Forfeiting a two-point lead, and ultimately the game

As was made abundantly clear in real time and in the post-mortems about the game, Simmons had an awful night in Boston, perhaps the worst he has had in a Sixers uniform. And with the rookie riding the pine in the fourth quarter, the Sixers made their move with McConnell manning the point guard position, ultimately ending up with a two-point lead in the game's final minutes.

McConnell was everything Simmons wasn't against Boston on Thursday, finding ways to involve himself whether he was on or off the ball. He came up with an offensive rebound among the trees early in the fourth quarter, and it felt like the Sixers might just pull this one out after Covington knocked down the ensuing three.

But rather than ride out the final frame with his backup guard running the show, Brown decided to go back to Simmons with the game on the line. When things went south for Philadelphia, it was an obvious talking point and one Brown seemed to feel little regret about.

It's a tough decision, I admit it. This whole playoff experience is something that I want our young players and star players to learn from and grow, and the decision do you go with T.J. still or do you come back to Ben Simmons, I'm coming back to Ben Simmons. He's had a hell of a year, I think he's the Rookie of the Year, I think he's going to have to learn to play in these environments, and I'm going back with Ben Simmons.

This time, I'm with Brown. I think it's a worthwhile exercise to acknowledge the hot hand and roll with the players who put you in position to win on a given night, but there are costs and benefits far beyond this single game for your young guys.

If the Sixers are going to get to the promised land over the next few years, it is going to take improvement and development from Simmons and Embiid primarily. That doesn't happen by hiding a guy in the game's biggest moments during a tough game, shielding them from the glare of the spotlight. Working through and learning from adversity is one of the most important things to do for any young professional, and you learn a lot about yourself and your character in moments like that final stretch for Simmons against Boston.

Setting aside the risk of alienating your star rookie by benching him to close it out, you would be throwing away one of the most valuable teaching moments imaginable for a young guy. Nearly every great player had to fail and get kicked in the teeth on a big stage in order for them to rise to prominence. Michael Jordan got embarrassed by the Bad Boys Pistons and came back to kick their ass eventually. LeBron James got laughed off the court by the Dallas Mavericks at the peak of his powers and was inspired enough to finally work on the low-post game his critics wanted him to develop for years. Over and over throughout basketball history, we have seen similar, if lower-profile examples serve as forks in the road for talented players.

There is a counter-argument to this thinking that my colleague Derek Bodner at The Athletic discussed overnight, and the short version is this — if you get the win with McConnell and live to fight another day, you essentially create the opportunity for more learning experiences with more games.

It's a fair enough point, but I think that, too, is an overly simplistic way to look at the situation. Development is not as simple as pure volume, and the quality and context of reps matter a great deal.

Last night's game was bad to a degree that Simmons was a laughingstock following the game, and it will be used as part of the case against him as a player for some time. It was a downright humiliating moment, which included him having no idea what to do with Aron freaking Baynes switched onto him, and yet he still had an opportunity to close out the game and get the job done when it mattered.

Seriously though, hold that thought for one second — Simmons is going to look at himself unable to do anything with ARON BAYNES in isolation, and I almost guarantee it will spark a reaction.

That game is going to cut deep for Simmons for a long time, creating a lasting memory that will quite possibly give him the extra boost of motivation he needs to improve his game. It's human nature for the brain to remember moments like these more vividly than you would a normal night at the office, even in a playoff format. This is completely subjective and one man's opinion, but the sting of embarrassment in the aftermath of Game 2 and the chance to play through that sort of game has the chance to be much more influential on his development than simply playing a few more games. 

It's not as though Boston is using some high-level chess to scheme Simmons out of this series — they're switching picks and minimizing matchup disadvantages when the ball is in his hands, and both he and his coach have struggled to adjust. Were they making him think the game at a high-level and using complex coverages to have him problem solve in real-time, it might be different. But I think the carryover effect from this singular, outlier game on his basketball memory is more significant than seeing if he'll start taking jumpers with 10 feet of space or if the Sixers will run enough screens to get the right switches in a seven-game set.

There's also the simple fact that Simmons, awful as he was on Thursday night, was a huge part of the reason you're in position to make decisions in a second-round series to begin with. When a guy has played consistently excellent basketball for you over months and months, he has earned the right to prove he can bounce back and figure it out. McConnell having to play the entire fourth quarter after closing out the third would have been pretty preposterous as well — he was fazed out of the rotation to end the season, and likely would have run out of gas at a time where they couldn't afford it.

At least on this one, there is some gray area worth arguing about. There are costs and benefits to either side of the decisionmaking process, and while I lean toward what Brown ended up doing, it's hard to argue Simmons gave you a better chance to win on this particular evening.

The verdict: Understandable, but certainly debatable

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