They have walked so long with him, and traveled such a distance, Brett Brown’s greatest fear is he will get them to this crossroad in the forbidding woods of the NBA playoffs and choose the wrong path.
“I like to say ‘appropriate fear,’ ” Brown said last week at the team’s training facility, a gray wash of fatigue pulling at his features and his eyes blurry from too much film and not enough sleep. “It’s never comfortable coaching in the NBA, out of respect for the league. I like living with appropriate fear that keeps us honest.”
At that time, the identity of the next opponent still wasn’t known. Brown and his staff had been up late and back early preparing the foundation of two game plans. Since Saturday night, the plan for Milwaukee has been discarded and the plan for Boston has been refined.
Where are the mismatches the Sixers want to exploit? What will the Celtics try to do on offense? How will they guard Ben Simmons? What information can be relied upon from the four games against Boston in the regular season, all played before the Sixers had either Ersan Ilyasova or Marco Belinelli?
“If you can select the game plan that is accurate and follow up with some subtle coaching adjustments and then just walk a series down, then you did a good job,” Brown said. “It’s like painting a house. If you do your work first, then you can just paint. If you do that [game plan] work and lay that foundation, then you can coach. You come up with a Plan B, for sure … but you don’t want to be making massive changes in Game 4. If you are too far off, you end up chasing, and that’s tough for young players.”
Brown was pleased with the plan he and his staff implemented for the opening round against Miami, one that was designed to maintain a quick pace of play in the face of the physical defense brought by the Heat. The Sixers wanted to push the ball and spread the floor, forcing Miami to chase the series, and that’s just what happened.
If the Celtics had Kyrie Irving for this next matchup, Boston’s game plan would be different. Irving averaged 25.7 points in three games against the Sixers during the regular season. Without that scoring, the Celtics will undoubtedly try to slow the game just like Miami, and they will make the attempt with bigger and better athletes.
“It’s going to be a very defensively oriented series,” Brown said. “It gets back to how you handle it emotionally, how you handle it when it gets under your skin mentally. When you declare that a series will be physical, it’s deeper than that. Every series is something more physical, something more dramatic, something more fundamental…and we have to be on point with the scouting report because everything gets amped up.”
One of the challenges Brown anticipates is staying with 10 players in his rotation, which will become particularly difficult if the game does slow down and every possession becomes more important.
Belinelli and Ilyasova played big minutes off the bench against the Heat, but Brown also worked in Amir Johnson, Justin Anderson, and T.J. McConnell to keep the lineup fresh and keep the ball moving. It’s possible 19-year-old Markelle Fultz could also have a role in the next series, but that doesn’t seem likely. Either way, Brown’s desire is to keep everyone involved because it gives the Sixers a conditioning edge, but also feeds the intangible of the team’s togetherness.
“If you study [playoff] series, games aren’t as fast, and rotations go from 10 to nine and from nine to eight. We don’t plan to do that. We want to play fast and with the style and the pace that got us where we’re at,” Brown said. “If you shrink the rotation, you can gut the spirit of the team. Sometimes it does happen, in a Game 6 or a Game 7, but if you feel the need to do it too soon, you run the risk of gutting the team spirit. I like our spirit, and the energy that Justin and T.J. bring. We want to be ‘us,’ [but] better.”
That was the idea as the final preparations were made for the Monday night start of the series. When Brown and his staff put together the game plan, they knew it would require some tinkering as Boston’s own plan is revealed. That’s called coaching.
“The playoffs are where you make your money on expedited learning,” Brown said.
What the players have learned so far is to trust Brown’s decisions and go full-speed down the path he has chosen for them. After all this time and all these miles, what has kept Brown up at night is the responsibility of picking the right one. Maybe the fear really is appropriate to the challenge, but the coach is equal to it as well.