May 01, 2018
When you're the prohibitive favorite in a series and your opponent loses one of their best players before the start of Game 1, you'd be forgiven for overreacting to a bad loss. The Sixers suffered one of those on Monday, with a poor effort on defense ultimately dooming them to a 117-101 defeat at the hands of the Boston Celtics.
In the wake of a loss like that, a lot of people will be pining for (and screaming about) wholesale changes, or major shakeups within the rotation to get things going. Human nature does not often allow us to consider the randomness of individual events, and prompts us to make corrections simply to feel a stronger sense of control.
But the major takeaway on the offensive end of the floor, after a rewatch of Game 2, is that the Sixers should feel pretty comfortable with the looks they were able to create against the league's top defensive team. The game was effectively killed in a second quarter the team lost by eight points, which on a normal night would not be enough to derail a team with as much offensive might as the Sixers.
So before they start tearing things up and questioning the meaning of life, the Sixers should be focusing on small tweaks, instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
The Sixers showed up for their practice at Harvard University on Tuesday afternoon with little indication they'd had their asses kicked the night before. Most of the players and coaches walked in with smiles on their faces, with Brett Brown, in particular, making sure the mood in the room did not get too sour. The affable head coach spent part of his media availability joking with Joel Embiid that he couldn't leave him hanging on a fist bump in front of the assembled press.
It's the mark of a young team to roll with the punches and not pay much attention to the gravity of the moment, but it's also the reflection of a team who still very much believes in what they planned for ahead of time. Brown highlighted some areas on the defensive end of the floor where the team might have let the game get away from them in Game 1, while understanding you have to live with the randomness of the sport sometimes.
"It is [more or less what we expected to see]," said Brown. "You ask about the matchup with JJ [Redick] and Jayson [Tatum], there's a little bit of that, [but] he scored on a bunch of people, Ben wasn't so good on him either and neither was Marco. What I decide to do with that, it's a fair question. That didn't surprise me. Horford picking and popping, that didn't surprise me. Baynes two corner threes surprised me, even though I love my Australian friend.
"I don't think there's danger in much if what the ultimate decisions are based on not overreacting. We all have all this abundance of math and analytics, and if you had to do it again, should you do it again? Shot selection, contested shots, and somewhere [in there], we and I cannot overreact. There's a lot of truth in just doing simple better."
That was most evident on the defensive end of the floor on Monday, but it holds true for Philadelphia on offense. By and large they got the shots they wanted throughout the game, and Embiid had a game that was much closer to his dominant effort in mid-January than it was his poor performance against Boston in October.
The Celtics are (on some level) happy to live with Embiid posting up and trying to outscore Boston with two-point shots, but against a player that dominant, there is a logical limit to letting him get his. Embiid smells blood in the water, and the Sixers are going to continue letting him go to work against Boston's big men.
"Last night I felt like I had an advantage, and every night that I play I feel like I have an advantage, so the whole goal for me is to basically dominate inside," said Embiid. "I'm going to play within my game and my game is to dominate inside, and take the occasional three-point shot."
Philadelphia lost the opening regular season game against Boston in part because they relegated Embiid to more of a jump shooter. There appears to be no danger of that happening this time.
If Embiid is going to keep his focus on the low block, that means the bulk of the three-point shooting has to come elsewhere. That's not typically a problem.
On Monday night, the Sixers just could not get anything going against the Celtics from deep, and as a team they had as many combined three-point makes (five) as Marcus Smart and Aron Baynes. That's the same Baynes who made just three shots from deep the entire regular season.
So yes, some of what happened on Monday is unsustainable on both ends, and the team's star believes that is going to change moving forward.
"I watched the game yesterday, we missed a lot of shots that we usually make," said Embiid. "They were a little bit more aggressive on our shooters, but those guys — Marco, Ersan, JJ, all those guys — those type of shots that they missed last night, they make it all the time. That's why I'm not worried about it, and when you combine that with what I can do on the post, I think we're going to be fine."
Look for yourself at some of the threes the Sixers couldn't get to go down against Boston. These are not well-contested or in some cases contested at all, and barring a miserable series for Philadelphia will eventually start to go down.
The problem you typically have against good defensive teams is creating high-value shots in the first place. That was not the issue for Philadelphia in Game 1, which indicates they're running a lot of the "right" plays to beat a good Boston team.
If the Sixers were asking guys to make shots who are not capable of doing so, it would be one thing. But this is not turning T.J. McConnell into an important piece of the shooting machine, or expecting Ben Simmons to suddenly turn into a go-to sniper out of nowhere. It's expecting the guys who are on the court to shoot and play attentive defense to do just that.
Perhaps there is some commentary to be made, however, about the types of players you are asking to carry you as shooters in a playoff format. Role players are role players for a reason: they are not able to hit peak-level performance on a consistent basis, or else they would play more minutes, make more money, and assume a bigger responsibility within a team's offense.
This is where Ben Simmons' lack of three-point shooting — or really any kind of shooting — can catch up with the Sixers. There's an obvious math problem in today's NBA when you build around a player who isn't getting to the line or contributing to their three-point attack. If one of your most consistent performers is lacking a fundamental part of perimeter play in 2018, it's hard to get mad at the complimentary guys for looking like complimentary guys in a playoff pressure cooker.
Is there the same variance in shooting from game-to-game if your top-end players are also top-end scorers? Maybe, maybe not. Regardless, the Sixers are going to live with the looks they're getting.
With Tatum balling out in Game 1 and for long stretches of his rookie season, it's completely fair for fans to expect Markelle Fultz to at least get on the court in the series. But it has felt pretty unlikely for that to happen since Brown turned to T.J. McConnell in the Miami series, and Brown all but confirmed his thought process before the Sixers practiced on Tuesday afternoon.
"It's my decision to go with T.J.," said Brown. "There are times when you for sure think about it, to say he's dead and buried that's not true. But I've got a decision to make and I've made a decision... Markelle Fultz played 10 end-of-season games for the year, and T.J. played the whole year and had a hell of a year. We've won 18 in a row or whatever it was, and we were winning and playing good basketball."
An astute observer would note that Fultz was part of that closing win streak, while also acknowledging he performed primarily against bad and/or tanking teams, with limitations to his game that were obvious even then.
But the overarching premise in Brown's stance on Fultz is logical. It seems clear that he wants to lean more and more on Simmons as these playoffs continue, with the rookie guard logging almost 42 minutes in Game 1 against Boston. Brown has lauded Simmons' conditioning level all year, and the coach is much more inclined to rely on that than a rookie whose status was uncertain from October through March of this season.
Like any good team, the Sixers got to where they are by establishing a sense of order and figuring out the pecking order, which most often didn't include Fultz. All that time on the sideline did not allow Fultz to go through the usual rookie development cycle, and his coach knows that.
"There's also a preparatory timeframe that logically somebody could have, should have, even if they weren't 19," said Brown. "And so I see it as I said it. I've decided to do it because there's continuation of growth of a whole year, there is a little bit of physicality element that we felt in the Miami game. T.J. grabbed his spot and walked it down and won a series, but it's not anything I'm not open to always reviewing."
If you were expecting for Fultz to come in and save the day on Thursday, in other words, don't bet on it. The focus with the No. 1 overall pick remains a long-term one, which is simultaneously disconcerting and understandable.
I say all of that to say this: there is no masked superhero who will plunge from the rafters to save Philadelphia that isn't named Joel Embiid. There is no massive adjustment that appears to be coming from an offensive scheme standpoint, nor does there really need to be.
The public suggested the Sixers were fatally flawed and their coach a maroon as they coughed up leads throughout the month of December, only for the team to continue playing their game and ascending with more reps. There is a lesson in the season's broader arc about staying the course and believing in your principles.
It certainly was the right answer before, but only time will tell if consistency proves a worthwhile answer to their problems against Boston.
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