Coming into this season, Sixers head coach Brett Brown had his fair share of detractors. Averaging less than 19 wins across your first four seasons isn’t likely to win people over in the court of public opinion, regardless of the extenuating circumstances of developmental league-level talent on the roster and a constant parade of 10-day contracts walking through the door. When the team lost 9 of 10 during a December stretch to fall to 14-18 this season, with horrendous late-game execution letting some games that should have been wins slip away, momentum was building in some circles for the team to move on from Brown.
Wisely, management decided that a mere 30 games or so with a legitimate NBA roster wasn’t enough to make an informed decision on a head coach. Brown remained at the helm, and went on to guide the Sixers to a record 16-game winning streak to finish the regular season and the 3-seed in the East.
As everyone is quick to point out, however, the postseason is a different animal. The opposition has the time to perform in-depth scouting on the best ways to stop what your team does best. In-game adjustments are critical when the outcome of every contest could determine whether you survive and advance or end up on Inside the NBA’s Gone Fishin’ segment. Matched up against Erik Spoelstra, a 2-time NBA champion widely considered to be one of the league’s top coaches, Brown would be faced with a difficult challenge in his first taste of postseason action.
After an opening game where Philadelphia scored 130 points in a resounding 27-point victory, Sixers fans can feel confident that Brown can hold his own against Spoelstra. The man on the sidelines for Philadelphia made the first major adjustment of the series, going small by starting Ersan Ilyasova in place of Amir Johnson to begin the second half.
The Heat led by 4 at the half, and after Goran Dragic opened the post-halftime scoring with a three to extend Miami’s lead to 7, the Sixers went on a 15-0 run to completely change the complexion of the game. The lineup adjustment to a 4-out system around Ben Simmons played a huge role in that surge, as the Sixers completely played Miami center Hassan Whiteside off the court. Whiteside checked out of the game 13 points into that run, a -10 plus/minus in just 4 minutes of second half action; he did not play the rest of the game.
Brett Brown recognized the Heat weren’t going to Whiteside offensively, so he reasoned the Sixers wouldn’t lose anything defensively having the smaller Ilyasova on him on that end. When the Sixers had the ball, they completely torched the Heat by exploiting the fact that Whiteside was not at all comfortable guarding out to the three-point line.
On this play, the Sixers run J.J. Redick off a dribble-handoff from Dario Saric, who is being covered by Whiteside. The Heat big man does nothing to step off and deter Redick, allowing him a wide-open look from behind the arc.
Then, Whiteside isn’t used to having to watch his man outside the arc on the weak side, and completely loses Ilyasova on a back cut to the rim.
Similar to the first play, Whiteside makes no effort to guard someone when his man Saric sets a screen up top. This time, Ilyasova cans the triple.
Finally, Whiteside retreats to the paint, as he is accustomed to do, leaving plenty of space for Saric to catch and shoot from the wing before he is able to recover.
No one would have said anything if Brown ran back the same starters out for the second half. But he recognized the difficulty Whiteside would have in needing to defend out to the three-point line, resulting in a huge run that was the turning point of a Game 1 victory.
It’s a long series and Spoelstra will certainly make counter adjustments starting in Game 2 and over the next week or two. Brown will have to respond to those changes in kind. In his first postseason test though, Brett Brown passed with flying colors.