For a team that has won just 47 times over the past 168 games, the Philadelphia 76ers found themselves in a somewhat familiar situation against the Cleveland Cavaliers: winning late in the fourth quarter.
On the back of Joel Embiid, the Sixers had impressively turned a 12 point deficit into a two point lead with just 2:36 left in the game. Considering that they were facing LeBron James and the reigning champions, it was inevitable the Sixers would lose the lead at some point.
Still, when Channing Frye knocked down a three to put the Cavaliers up 102-101, the lead up to his crucial basket made it look like the only team beating the Sixers were themselves. They turned the ball over 5 times in their final five possessions, and shot just 1-4 in the final 5:33 of the fourth quarter.
The Sixers had a chance to bail themselves out when J.R. Smith hoisted and missed a three with 15 seconds left, but indecision on the part of the coach cost them precious time. Brett Brown allowed the team to try and break down the floor to catch the Cavaliers off guard — resulting in a favorable matchup of Joel Embiid against Channing Frye — only to reverse course seven seconds later.
Now in the precarious position of having to execute a sidelines out of bounds play, Brown needed to draw up something that could effectively create space for one of their playmakers. What followed did not fit that description.
After the Sixers used their final timeout to try and correct the mistakes from the first attempt, they brought out a slightly modified version of the same play that had already proven to be unsuccessful.
The design would fail them once again. The plan of the second effort was to get the ball into Ilyasova, then try to feed Embiid on the low block, who was grappling with Thompson for position. Cleveland had already shown the first time that they were switching everything, and running Rodriguez across the three-point line was only going to drag James right into Ilyasova’s way. Asking your power forward whose been with the team for just two games to fight off the best player in the world, then feed the post with a pass over the top of Thompson, is going have a low success rate.
The team’s two best ball handlers on the floor, Sergio Rodriguez and Gerald Henderson, are in no position to get anything set up for Embiid. Henderson is inbounding, and the down screen for Rodriguez is perhaps some sort of diversion, because he’s not even pretending to look for the pass. By the time Henderson gets the ball in his hands, he’s forced to try and create something on his own.
The play looked doomed from the setup alone, although the real problem lies in how slow to evolve it was. Brown should’ve already known that, because he ran it earlier this season.
Sixers ran the same exact play they ran twice tonight with 35 seconds left in the season opener against OKC. Didn't work then either. pic.twitter.com/oF91EQvP58— Jake Pavorsky (@JakePavorsky) November 6, 2016
While this eventually generates a half decent look for Embiid, it takes nearly 10 seconds to get him the ball. Philadelphia didn’t have nearly that amount of time, especially because Brown allowed eight seconds to run off the clock before he burned a timeout.
The repetitive, ineffective style of Brett Brown has been a theme throughout his tenure in Philadelphia. The feeling of a close, soul crushing loss has almost become comfortable with him in charge.
Of course, it’s hard to place all the blame solely on him. He took on a nearly impossible task of coaching a team devoid of any talent four seasons ago, and has experienced many roster hiccups along the way. The roster is largely inexperienced, and still figuring out how to mesh its prized youngsters with newly acquired veterans. Although Brown himself isn’t the one repeatedly turning the ball over, this young team needs effective guidance from the bench to pull out close games, and the head coach seems to be failing them in that department.
He’s shown little mastery as a tactician. The team’s offense is still remarkably minimalistic for a coach that’s been here for so long, and the free flowing system hurts them late in games when they don’t have go to plays for important possessions. Their shot selection is poor and rushed when it matters, which screams a lack of direction. Philadelphia also happens to be one of the worst teams in the league in after timeout/out of bounds plays year after year, and the failure to execute in that facet of the game eventually has to fall on the head of the coach.
There is a little satisfaction in the fact this currently constructed Sixers roster is able to hang in with an opponent that good until the final buzzer, but similar losses are happening against teams much less worthy than the Cavaliers on a consistent basis. General manager Bryan Colangelo has the pressure of trying to get this team off the ground in a short period of time, and there’s not much time left for moral victories to still be considered acceptable. The mindset of the organization is shifting towards being results based rather quickly. In the very near future, Brett Brown is going to have to show that his coaching is good enough to elevate this team to tangible wins. As the same weaknesses continue to expose themselves, his body of work is indicating that he may not be capable of doing that.
Perhaps the Sixers can finally pull out some of those victories when Ben Simmons returns to the court. Maybe they need one more summer to bring in those final pieces through the draft and free agency. But if Brett Brown does not learn from his mistakes and make it work with what he has, the Sixers will be forced to make a change.