Brett Brown and the Sixers would, without a doubt, prefer for each of their seven wins this season to have been blowouts.
But the Sixers' head coach acknowledged Tuesday night after Tobias Harris found Joel Embiid for a dunk to put the Sixers on top of the Cavaliers with 13.2 seconds to play, Kevin Love missed an open three-pointer and the clock expired following a mad scramble for the loose rebound that he gets some pleasure from the tight finishes.
“We've had a ton of close games,” he said after the 98-97 win (see observations). “I mean, we really have. I sadistically love it. I do because we spent so much time on situations over our days here.”
During training camp, Brown dedicated ample time to sideline and baseline out of bounds plays, scenarios in which his team might need a two or a three, and a variety of other late-game possibilities. He recognized the importance of “mastering vanilla,” as he likes to say — nailing down the basics with his new team — but he also wanted to start tinkering early.
I play with stuff,” he said on Oct. 4. “I’ll go in and run something 10 times in a row and just keeping doing it, and then I’ll move people around, and then I’ll change the angle and play with it. You have a base that you think you want to work with, and then you maneuver within that. What goes into deciding what is the base? Thirty-five years of coaching, 20 years of coaching in the NBA, gut feel, a little bit of analytics and just sort of inherent curiosity. You know what I think about plays in general. Because with the creativity of coaches nowadays where you can come out and they could be sitting in a zone, they could switch one through four, keep five at home, sag the inbounder, pressure the inbounder. There’s just so many things that you’re seeing.
And to feel like you’re going to come out with all the answers is really not smart. And so for me, I like to just put them in an environment — and that’s the word, an environment. Then they’ve got to choose different options out of it. That’s the mentality when you’re talking about 'need' plays, ATOs, catch shot down three, catch shot down two, need two with time, all that stuff.
Already, Brown has created three “evrironments” that have produced game-winning baskets or free throws. Al Horford’s screen freed Furkan Korkmaz in the right corner against the Trail Blazers.
And Tuesday night, Embiid set a ball screen for Josh Richardson at the right elbow after Ben Simmons' inbounds pass. As Richardson probed for an opening, Embiid rolled toward the rim, then set a strong down screen for Tobias Harris. That flowed into a perfectly executed high-low — similar to the one that led to Embiid’s game-winning free throws on Oct. 28 in Atlanta.
“Great play call by coach,” Embiid said. “Great drawn play, and we did the rest. Great pass by Tobias, and I was wide open.”
If the offensive foul call on Embiid in Denver Friday night had instead been judged a defensive foul on Nikola Jokic — as the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report said it should have been — Brown might very well have had four game-winning out of bounds plays in 10 games.
Still, there’s an element of luck at play for teams that put themselves in those situations over and over again, as Richardson acknowledged.
“You’re going to win some of those, hopefully more than you lose,” he said. “But I understand the NBA — it’s hard to win. There are going to be some of those games where we don’t come out on top. But for me, I think it’s good for us to experience this, because in the playoffs when things slow down, when things get tough, we’ve got a good foundation to lean on.”
As much as he enjoys the challenge of those spots and feels equipped to handle them, Brown gave a very colorful, affirmative answer when asked if his team is playing with fire.
“It is a blowtorch,” he said. “And it is violent. It's a really big one. You're just watching the game unfold and you can't make some of that up. And I'm the coach, and so I gotta figure it out. But some of those turnovers certainly were head-scratching. I do give our guys credit for not crumbling. I think that we knew if we had to do anything, we better play defense, and defense we played. I liked the way that we defended, especially down the stretch. I don't think they scored in the last three minutes.”
The Sixers’ next four games are against the 3-7 Magic, 4-7 Thunder, 4-6 Cavs and dysfunctional, 2-9 Knicks. Brown will hope he can wait a while before again being faced with the exhilarating responsibility of putting his team in a fruitful late-game environment.
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