Evaluating Brett Brown’s first playoff appearance
After a dazzling end to the regular season, Brown’s first playoff run as a head coach had its ups and downs. The Sixers were able to easily dispose of the Miami Heat before falling to Boston in five games.
The Celtics series left much to be desired on the coaching front. However, I think within the Celtics series, which was admittedly troubling, we lost how impressive the series against Miami was. For the vast majority of the Sixers, including Brown himself, it was their first playoff appearance. Despite the inexperience, the Heat were never a match for the Sixers. Brown and the three-seed 76ers made light work of Miami in just five games
The Heat series
The Heat certainly don’t have a star-studded roster, but winning a playoff series in the NBA is difficult, no matter who the opponent is. For the Sixers to make that look so easy in their first playoff appearance in six seasons is impressive.
Erik Spoelstra awaited Brown and the Sixers for round one. The two time NBA champion is generally revered around the league as a very good head coach. To even drag that Heat team, which certainly had its flaws, to the six-seed is no easy task. Yet Brown never really gave him a chance in round one and countered every adjustment he could have made. The season ended on a sour note, but Brown leading this team to its first series victory in six seasons is a huge step towards contention. The players understood the gravity of the moment, again letting Brown ring the ceremonial bell as they showered him in celebratory beverages.
LOVE This!!!#Sixers coach Brett Brown DRENCHED ? in Locker room for winning 1st Playoff Series!
Brown wanted JJ Redick to ring postgame bell ? but @JJRedick making Brown do it!
— Jeff Skversky 6abc (@JeffSkversky) April 25, 2018
The Celtics series
There’s plenty to unpack about Brown’s performance in the conference semifinals. In Brown’s first playoff run, he found himself outmatched by Brad Stevens. That fact, on its own, is not much of a problem. Stevens is touted as a top two coach in the league at worst, and there’s no shame in losing to him as long as you learn from it.
The key areas in which Brown failed was in making adjustments, as well as late-game execution. While he eventually did make the change, TJ McConnell was possibly the most effective Sixer in the series, and it took Brown too long to fully commit to giving him more minutes. McConnell had a +/- of +41 in a series in which the Sixers struggled to get any players hot. Brown did get there, but in the playoffs, every minute of every game is so crucial, and late might as well be never.
Game two of the Celtics series might have been the lowest moment in Brown’s first season in the playoffs. In a game that could have given the Sixers home court advantage for the series, they watched a 22-point lead disappear. Brown refused to make any adjustments or even call timeout and allowed the Celtics run to spiral out of control. He claimed he chose not to call a timeout because he wanted to trust his players to work out of it themselves, and said: “I’d do it again.” In the regular season in a game with fewer implications, this could be a decent learning experience. In what felt like a must-win game two, it was not the time to teach lessons.
Give credit where credit is due
A common complaint about Brown in this series is that often Stevens had the Sixers beat on play call alone. That is concerning, and the easiness with which Boston was able to get the switch they wanted the Sixers to make was at times astonishing. However, there was a lot of uproar about what turned out to be the winning bucket in game three.
Many fans were upset as to how Robert Covington, standing at six foot nine weighing 215 pounds ended up alone on the block with the taller 250 pound Al Horford. Before pointing figures at the coach, I think it’s important to dive into the cleverness of this play design.
Breaking down the game winner
Stevens and the Celtics know that Embiid is an elite defender, and clearing him from wherever the ball ends up is crucial. Embiid starts the play on the right elbow with Horford. In order to get him out of the paint, Horford comes down and sets a screen on Simmons as Jayson Tatum pushes him towards the sideline. This leaves Jaylen Brown alone to go out to the three-point line, where Embiid is forced to follow him.
The second biggest shot-blocking threat on the floor is Simmons. Tatum moving him out of the paint and towards the in-bounder makes him disappear too. This leaves Covington to pick up Horford all alone inside the restricted arc.
Without even setting a screen on Embiid himself, Stevens was able to force him completely out of the play. He did this while also managing to rid the paint of the next tallest Sixer. Looking at Brown and asking why he didn’t put together a better defense is unfair. The design of this play is brilliant, and without knowing it’s coming is borderline indefensible.
Stevens was drawing up plays like this all series, and sometimes it’s okay to tip your cap and respect the guy behind the other clipboard. The concern comes if Brown is unable to adjust next season and prepare for what Stevens will throw at him.
What should we expect moving forward?
In Brown’s first season as the coach of a contending team, he exceeded expectations, despite ending the season poorly. Looking to the future, our standards along with our expectations must increase. For at least this next season, the Sixers are not going to win the NBA title. The Warriors have a monopoly on the league’s talent pool, and until that changes winning the Eastern Conference means nothing.
That said, there needs to be improvement. It’s not certain when the Sixers window will open, but when it does, they must pounce on the opportunity. Every season moving forward is a chance to prepare for that window.
To call this upcoming season a success, the Sixers will have to make headway on beating Stevens and the Celtics. In Brown’s first playoff appearance he was deserving of leeway in his bout with one of the league’s best. Next season, he will no longer have that luxury. With essentially the same roster, Brown and the Sixers must progress and move towards defeating Boston and the rest of the Eastern Conference. If they do not, it will be time to ask questions of whether or not Brown is the right man to lead this team to the finals. Until then, Brown has earned his stay in Philly, and we should be excited about what he brings moving forward.