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May 08, 2018

Do the Sixers have what it takes to make history with a 3-0 comeback?

Sixers NBA
050818-BenSimmons-USAToday Bill Streicher/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons high fives center Joel Embiid after scoring against the Boston Celtics during the fourth quarter in game four of the second round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center.

BOSTON — Put it this way: the Sixers are not the first (and won't be the last) team to believe they are capable of digging themselves out of a 3-0 hole in a seven-game NBA series. They may not even be the most talented or the most prepared team to do so, all things considered. On the same night they staved off elimination at home, the East's No. 1 seeded Toronto Raptors got boat-raced on the road in Cleveland, with all their fantastic regular season numbers adding up to mean exactly nothing.

But the journey toward making history starts with singular plays, adds up into single-game victories, and would be achieved by stringing those together over the span of just a week. They have gone beyond blind hope and recognize the approach they need to take to make a series out of this, let alone come away with an Eastern Conference Finals appearance.

"After you're down 3-0, you come on the court and fight and try to follow the game plan," said Dario Saric following Monday's Game 4 win. "We can't lose anything. We took the taste of how it feels on the court after losing. From 3-0, now it's 3-1. We need to play play-by-play. Every game is a special one, and we treat it like that the whole game."

Philadelphia's spirit, the focus of head coach Brett Brown's preparation, has not dropped in spite of the circumstances. Robert Covington embraced the challenge of moving to the bench for T.J. McConnell, and his teammate rose to the challenge of changing the tenor of the series. With the series hanging in the balance, the Sixers finally broke through against a Boston team that has made their lives miserable through the first four games.

Do they have what it takes to make history? It's not the most realistic outcome, but the necessary ingredients look to be coming together.

The power of positive thinking

For the X's and O's to mean anything for Philadelphia, it first requires the men suiting up for the Sixers to have a belief they are capable of doing this. To use the Raptors as an example again, their mental collapse was all but spelled out by what they had to say in the wake of their losses in Games 2 and 3. Dwane Casey's overarching message was about Toronto playing for "pride," and you saw how much that meant in a Game 4 blowout.

From the moment Game 3 ended, Brett Brown sang a much different tune.

"Teams that are down 3-0 have a record of 129-0," said Brown on Saturday evening. "Just think about that number. The number to me, zero, happens more out of spirit than talent. There's a breaking point we all have, and I believe that if we can maintain our spirit, why couldn't we be the one? And I mean that. That's my goal with us, is to fight, keep our mind believing some of what I just said, I hope all of it, and let their bodies recover and give us a chance. That's all I know, I can't see any other way to approach this that makes sense to me, so that's what we're going to do."

The leaders of his team have stepped up to confirm what their coach had to say. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid both avoided the locker room (and thus, the media) before Game 4 started on Monday, and when they emerged in the aftermath of the game, the young center was wearing a shirt that made their intentions clear:

Simmons doubled down on the message during his postgame availability, highlighting a discussion between the two stars before the game about the hunger within the squad.

"I'm not ready to go home and start my vacation, definitely not," said Simmons. "I texted Jo before the game and we spoke about it. We want to be here. We believe our time is now. It's going to take a lot, but that's just the way our mindset is – we know we're the leaders of this team."

Those words are accompanied with action, a reinforcement of belief that permeates through the front office. Elton Brand, the former Sixers player who is now the general manager of the Sixers' G-League affiliate in Delaware, offers the sort of input you can only get from a front office member who thinks like a player. Prior to the do-or-die Game 4 in Philadelphia, Brand suggested sending out a Game 5 itinerary to the players in the team group chat, which was followed up with formal flight plans and packed bags. Making the team charter obselete was never an option.

So Philadelphia has the first part down: heart and strength of belief. The rest comes down to, you know, actually going out and playing basketball.

A lineup change that shifts the series

If you would have pulled a Sixers fan aside during the 2015-16 season and whispered in their ear that T.J. McConnell would be the potential difference-maker in a playoff series just two seasons later, they would have started looking for a straightjacket to put you in. How could the guard who led the way for a 10-win team have that sort of impact?

It's fairly simple, as it turns out: the matchups for Philadelphia on both sides of the floor just make a little more sense with McConnell in that starting group. Terry Rozier, the pace-setter for Boston's offense, has it a lot more difficult when he has to deal with McConnell playing 94 feet of defense and making his life miserable. The Sixers' guard may not be as versatile or good a defender as Robert Covington is on an across-the-board basis, but within the context of this series, he adds a pain-in-the-ass element that can throw the Celtics off their game.

Some of this is unquantifiable — assuming your defensive player can withstand the conditioning toll, an offensive player is going to wear down and grow annoyed if he's being picked up at 94 feet for the majority of a basketball game. Having to work harder just to get the ball up the floor isn't something any player wants to do, even if they're just playing a pickup game at the local rec center.

But beyond that drain, there is also something as simple as a clean one-on-one matchup in a halfcourt setting. The Celtics, as was noted in our expansive series preview, are one of the most isolation heavy teams in the league. The frequency with which they run these plays has only increased in the playoffs — they represent over 10 percent of their total offense — which puts a higher burden on their cast of characters to win one-on-one matchups.

Were this a matchup with Kyrie Irving, McConnell would probably be a little out of his depth. But he is up for the task of bothering Rozier, and the Sixers have already seen the benefit of matching small for small instead of placing one of Covington or Simmons on him.

According to the NBA's matchup data, Rozier is shooting less (and much worse) with McConnell guarding him than either of their two primary wing defenders.

Player Rozier FG%  BOS team differential
 Ben Simmons (26.5 possessions per game) 44.4+11.6 
 T.J. McConnell (19/G) 16.7 -27.5
 Robert Covington (13.8/G) 61.5 +26.3


Does that hold up for an entire seven-game series? Who knows, and as with anything within a span of so few games, a lot of this is guesswork and subjective to wild swings back and forth. Brad Stevens will have seen the difference McConnell made in Game 4 on both ends, and will no doubt be looking to draw up counters to neutralize the boost he offers Philadelphia.

But on the Sixers' end, they're focusing most intently on the things within their control, not peering into a crystal ball of what Boston might do to junk up what has worked for them in this series. In fact, Brown continues to put his mind to other areas of the game that the Sixers feel they can continue tipping matchups in their favor.

"To predict they're going to come up with some clever way to exploit T.J. because we played him yesterday, that isn't on my mind," said Brown. "We'll all go through different things, like I decided to move Joel off Horford a little bit, because Horford's mobility of pick-and-pop threes and creating those long closeouts for 7'2" running back out at Al didn't seem to be that successful ... I feel that we'll be equipped to handle [any counter-measures to the McConnell move]."

Finding their defensive footing

What was most clear in Game 4 relative to their performance in the rest of the series was Philadelphia's change in attitude and approach to stopping Boston on the defensive end of the floor. There was a level of commitment beyond what we'd seen through the first three games, led by the big man at the center of all things defense, Embiid.

As Brown explained in that quip about their Horford coverage, decreasing the toll on his body was a big part of their adjustment. But because Horford is not necessarily a go-to scorer, the Sixers' approach had to center on some of the players on Boston who are, like rookie wing Jayson Tatum.

The rookie has tortured Philadelphia in this series, invoking plenty of grief about how Philadelphia's draft trade last June could impact the franchise for years to come. For now, however, they have focused their efforts on slowing him down and forcing other players in Boston's lineup to beat them.

"How we stop him is completely related to team," said Brown on Tuesday, "it's completely related to schematic stuff with some of the sets they feature him in. There's some of, you know, we might put TJ on him or go length with Ben Simmons or Cov type answers as well."

Philadelphia's answer to Tatum (and a lot of Boston's offense) is not dissimilar to the answer the late, great Jim Johnson had for the NFC East in the early 2000's: send the blitz. Rather than allowing Tatum to score in isolation, as he is wont to do, the Sixers crowded him on the perimeter and forced him to move the ball. With two players on the court the Sixers feel comfortable in funneling shots to (Marcus Smart and Aron Baynes), they're willing to live with the results of overhelping on Boston's more dangerous offensive players.

Results, as always in a seven-game series, are not always going to lean in your favor within a sample this small.


Brown and his staff acknowledge this and stressed that they're willing to live with some of the downside in the aftermath of Game 4.

“You can’t do it a lot, but to put them in an aggressive mindset and aggressive defensive format and deliver the message that I have just said, it equals something,” Brown said. “And the risk/reward of them splitting a trap or passing out of a trap and playing effectively 4-on-3 behind that, there is some truth. But we felt like it tilted more on the risk we had to take to get the reward we got.”

If Boston wants to, they're capable of countering this strategy by simply putting different personnel on the floor, which would start with swapping in, say, Marcus Morris instead of Baynes. You don't want to be giving up a ton of corner threes to Morris, who is much more liable to make you pay from out there or attack you on a closeout than Baynes is.

But there is a balancing act on both sides of this equation, and at the very least, the Sixers have found another wrinkle with which to frustrate their opponent, even if only for small stretches. 

Reason to believe the breaks will start bouncing their way

"Just shoot better" is a little too simple, but it's not far from the truth. The Sixers are shooting well below their regular-season average from the three-point line against Boston, dropping from 36.9 percent over the course of 82 games to 29.6 percent in the first four games of their matchup.

Some of this is a product of the matchup — the Celtics have been one of the league's top three-point defenses for years now, and remained No. 1 at deterring teams at the line this season. But the Sixers did not have the same problem in their regular-season series against Boston, and in fact shot a tick above their average (39.6 percent) during their meetings prior to the playoffs. The opposite has been true for their opponent:

 Game type (2017-18) Three-point shooting
 Regular season vs. Sixers 10.5/30.5 (34.4 percent)
 Playoffs vs. Sixers13.3/35.3(37.6 percent) 


Should we expect that to hold in Game 5, or for however long this series lasts? I'm not sure. But looking at the tape, the average observer and the head coach of the Sixers come to an agreement — the Sixers aren't exactly missing tough shots out there.

"In general, we just haven't shot the ball well. Often times, you're looking and it's not like people are draping on their shot, there are lots of open looks that we need to make. You could almost sing the same song at times with the free-throw line. I think we're leaving points on the table," Brown said on Tuesday.

He's not kidding. The Sixers are getting some good, if not wide-open looks for the guys they trust to make shots, and they simply aren't going down.


To a degree, you could chalk this up to relying on role players to be your primary drivers of three-point offense. That explanation can only take you so far, however, and eventually one or more of these guys is going to break out of the doldrums and deliver a big performance from beyond the arc.

If they don't, the Sixers are going to have a difficult time winning Game 5, let alone find a way to do the impossible and climb out of a 3-0 hole. Boston's defense has done a good job of limiting the effectiveness of Philadelphia's two best players, and I wouldn't expect the likes of Embiid and Simmons to get a friendly whistle on Boston's home floor on Wednesday night, especially with the way officiating tilted Philly's way in Game 4.

But something has to give at some point, and whether that's regression from Smart and Baynes or Philadelphia's shooters finding their form, the shot-making part of the equation will likely determine Philadelphia's fate.

The odds favor the team with an upcoming home game, and a Game 7 on their floor should Philadelphia extend this series to the limit. Escaping Game 5 with a win remains unlikely, and the Sixers would be fortunate just to be able to play on their home floor again this season.

Just don't be surprised if the team with high-end talent and several components necessary for a comeback manages to put it all together.


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