After beating the last shred of brakes off the Brooklyn Nets on Monday night, the Philadelphia 76ers find themselves in a similar situation as last year: Eastern Conference Semi-Finals against an opponent they did not play well against in the regular season.
Last year, the Sixers lost three out of four games to the team that eventually bounced them, the Boston Celtics. This year, the story is the same, but the opponent is different: the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors took three out of four in the regular season.
The Sixers roster has seen some changes since that 4-1 series loss to the Celtics. The one constant – as it has been since 2013 – has been head coach Brett Brown. I haven’t said this, personally, but I have friends who have been calling for Brett Brown’s job. There are “#FireBrettBrown” stans on Twitter and have been since the beginning of the season.
My feeling on Brett Brown has been the same since the beginning of the season. There needs to be a step forward in some way.
(DISCLAIMER: PERSONAL FEELINGS ALERT!)
Brett Brown didn’t have to make it to the NBA Finals to save his job. I didn’t think the Sixers would make it there when the season began. When they traded for Jimmy Butler, I still didn’t think they had enough. When they traded for Tobias Harris, Boban, Mike Scott, etc., I still didn’t think they had enough.
I thought Toronto was better 1 through 8. I thought Milwaukee was better 1 through 6. This could very well be the series where not having a decent enough bench bites the Sixers in the ass.
Mike Scott has been BETTER. James Ennis III has been BETTER, but Toronto’s bench is better, and I think Milwaukee’s bench is better should the Sixers make it to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Justin Carter did a deep dive of possible rotations for this series, and there are plenty of positives. There are some scenarios where the Sixers must take advantage and/or force Toronto to play Kawhi and Lowry maybe more than they want to.
That being said …
An early exit spanking at the hands of Nick Nurse, Kawhi Leonard, and the Raptors likely would cost Brown his job.
After winning 52 games last year, the Sixers won 51 games and reached the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since the 2011 and 2012 seasons. The Sixers took the Miami Heat out in five games before meeting their demise to the Celtics.
In that series, Brown was just simply outcoached by Brad Stevens. There’s no other way you can explain what happened when you consider the Sixers had far more talent on the floor than Boston in that series.
Brown was outcoached. To say otherwise is false.
Maybe you put some solace in the fact it was Brown’s first run in the playoffs as a head coach – an important distinction because in San Antonio, obviously Popovich is the voice on that bench. When you’re the one calling the shots, it’s quite different.
This time around, Brown is (technically) the more experienced playoff coach. This is Nick Nurse’s first run in the big chair after the Raptors sent Dwayne Casey to purgatory – or the Detroit Pistons, my bad.
Nurse … has some experienced guys, though, to kinda soften the educational blow, so to speak. He has Kyle Lowry – who’s had many (underwhelming) runs in the playoffs. He’s got Kawhi Leonard – an NBA Finals MVP. Marc Gasol is old but a playoff veteran. Toronto was the team I didn’t want to see in the second round because I still think we can go toe-to-toe with Milwaukee in a seven-game series.
This series is frighteningly even from a “talent on the floor” standpoint. It’s going to come down to benches, and more importantly, coaching.
Brown has made some nice little adjustments. After seeing TJ McConnell get moderately singed by D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie in game one, Brown gave Jimmy Butler more time as the backup point guard to Ben Simmons. Most of TJ’s points and minutes came in garbage time.
The point has been made a lot about Brown having more pick-and-roll plays for Simmons as the ROLL man. (Yes. More Simmons as the roll man. More of this against Toronto!) That wrinkle led to Simmons’s best playoff game: 31 points, 9 assists, 11-13 FG, 9-11 FT.
Our own Sean Kennedy broke those two wrinkles down in-depth earlier today.
Joel Embiid’s status from game-to-game didn’t make things easy, either, but Brown was able to scheme and gameplan on the fly relatively well against Brooklyn. He better be damn good at adjustments against Toronto because it’ll get ugly fast if not.
Brown did say this about his new group of guys versus Toronto after the team’s series clincher:
I mean we all understand what the math says with our success in Toronto, and it’s not flattering. But it’s also not directed to the team that we have. And so you can credit it or you can discredit it. I’m discrediting it. I think that we have a new group, we have a new opportunity.
This is an interesting point. Can you discredit the regular season? Maybe. Let’s look at the four games against Toronto:
- October 30 – Lost by 17 in Toronto: the Ben Simmons 11 turnover game (pre-Butler trade)
- December 5 – Lost by nine in Toronto: first game vs. Toronto in Jimmy Butler era
- December 22 – Won by 25 in Philadelphia: no Kawhi for Toronto
- February 5 – Lost by 12 in Philadelphia: (This one I can’t defend. Both teams were at full strength at the time.)
The Raptors have never seen the newest phase of the 2018-2019 Sixers. They may not have a whole lot of film on the team, either, because all five starters haven’t really played together. The first round against Brooklyn was really the jumping off point for this group, and boy was it.
In the playoffs thus far, the Sixers have the best five man plus/minus lineup at +17.8 with Simmons, Redick, Harris, Butler, and Embiid according to NBA.com. They scored 120+ three times out of five games and that lineup had a DRtg of less than 65. That’s crazy!
Guess who’s number two in best five man plus/minus. Yup. The Toronto Raptors. Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol are +16.8 in the playoffs and had a DRtg of 81. They were playing the Orlando Magic, so stock that however you want, but the Sixers were playing Brooklyn, so... ((shrug)).
This will be a series of punches and counterpunches. Brown even admitted his team will get punched when he said his team “will be tested immediately when we get up into Toronto”. Will the Sixers punch back is the very important follow-up question.
If the Sixers lose in a tightly contested six or seven game series, that’s one thing.
If they lose in four or five games, and not one game is close, we may lose that glorious salt beard going into next season.