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January 04, 2017

Sixers-Wolves x-ray: Why did Brett Brown change up his rotation in the second half?

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Robert Covington’s below-the-rim alley-oop got the Sixers a win last night at the buzzer, but it’s fair to wonder why those late heroics were even necessary. After all, the Sixers led the Minnesota Timberwolves by 26 points early in the second half, which normally means game over because Tom Thibodeau’s team is comically bad in third quarters.

As always with these Sixers, the questions seem to start with the big guys.

“You look at a Jahlil-Nerlens thing, for example,” Brett Brown said. “Nerlens had a good first half and you want to keep trying to find ways to play the three of them and keep them alive. Our intention was to finish the game with a Nerlens [Noel] and a Joel Embiid. Whether they were going to be together I don’t know, but that was how we were going to play that out.

“And they jumped us in the third period, they got back in the game. And you know, you didn’t feel comfortable seeing that plan through.”

From here, Brown has nobody to blame but himself.

Noel was excellent in the first half as the first big guy off the bench. He ran the floor hard, caught alley-oops, played disruptive pick-and-roll defense, and made rotations very few bigs can. The 22-year-old shared a good bit of responsibility in helping build that 57-42 lead heading into halftime:

His reward? Three stinking second-half minutes.

Instead of sticking to the same rotation, Brown made Jahlil Okafor the first big off the bench after halftime. And not all that surprisingly, the Sixers were outscored 14-3 in the time that Okafor played. Minnesota did jump the Sixers in the third period as Brown said, but these weren’t the same players they saw in the first half.

To be clear, that period wasn’t entirely Okafor’s fault. For instance, Covington was incapable of making a wide-open jump shot and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot made rookie mistakes in missing a few rotations on Zach LaVine. They certainly played a part in letting Minnesota back into the game, but both the numbers and eye test are pretty clear: The Sixers are at their worst when Okafor plays, especially defensively.

Brown unveiled the Embiid-Noel pairing for the first time in a brief second-quarter spell. Before the game, he had a funny line about playing those two in the same frontcourt.

“I’m terrified offensively, but I’m extremely curious defensively,” he said.

Then Brown was asked which of the two sides matters more to him, and considering he’s a basketball coach, I bet you can guess which way he answered.

“Defense, it’s not even close,” Brown said. “I’ve said it, words are cheap. We need to build a program first on that.”

Noel did eventually enter the game in the fourth quarter, and he didn’t stand out in a short run after scoring eight points in the first half. Brown admittedly has a difficult job in trying to keep all three players happy, but if defense really is a top priority, his rotations last night aren’t making that very obvious.


•    “Rookie of the year would be great, but I don’t think it’s going to help me get to my crush so hopefully the all-star get to do that.” Embiid on a possible clean sweep for rookie of the month

•    “Just keep shooting. I don't care. The fans are going to be fans, they started booing him after the first shot of the game he missed. So, I kept telling him, ‘Keep shooting, they’re going to double-team and I’m going to find you.’ Keeping firing it, just keep shooting the ball.” Embiid on what he tells Covington during shooting slumps

Extra notes

•    According to, the Embiid-Ersan Ilyasova pairing is now outscoring opponents by 7.6 points per 100 possessions in a little under 300 minutes. For a frame of reference, that number would be good for the fourth-best team mark in the league.

It’s not like the Sixers have any “Death Lineups” (well, unless they’re doing the dying), but that has been a very effective two-man unit considering the team’s normal effectiveness.

•    On the same day that I wrote about the rip through move, Embiid drew fouls with it twice in this game. That said, he also made a few mistakes down the stretch trying to draw contact, throwing up bad shots.

Down the stretch, the refs were letting the players play. Embiid going head-to-head with Towns was competitive, ultra-physical, and sloppy:

•    Embiid got a little feisty at a couple points. First, it was with Kris Dunn. I wonder if he said, “How the heck did people think you were going to win rookie of the year?”

And while Embiid didn’t get into any type of altercation with Towns, he took some glee in his opposite number getting T’d up:

•    I wouldn’t mind seeing a little more Sauce Castillo, Backup Point Guard. Nik Stauskas may turn out to be susceptible to full-court pressure and definitely needs to pick his spots better on drives, but he made some heady reads in the pick-and-roll and drive-and-kick games as the team’s primary ball-handler against Minny.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann