PHILADELPHIA – Brett Brown has a unique phrase that he preaches to his Philadelphia 76ers before every game.
A “pre-mortem,” as Brown explains, is an insight into how things could go poorly. If the Sixers were to loose on a given night, what would this look like and how would it happen? These are the questions Brown ponders, like any coach, but his pre-mortem is designed prevent defeat due to the obvious. In other words, don’t get beat by what you know.
Entering Wednesday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets, Brown’s pre-mortem was a relatively simple exercise. Having already played Brooklyn twice this season, and seeing his defence get lit up both times, the Sixers leading man knew what to expect.
“We have a hard time defending them,” Brown said of Brooklyn in his pre-game availability. “Any team that has multiple, live ball, pick-and roll ball handlers is tough. It’s tough for us to guard them.”
Them, in this setting, goes beyond the Brooklyn Nets. It refers to teams with shifty ball-handlers who have shown a panache of shredding Philadelphia’s backline. Kemba Walker, just to cite one example, scored 127 points in his three games against the Sixers. With or without Jimmy Butler, there has been no answer.
But back to Brooklyn, who with D'Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, are equipped with multiple pick-and roll ball handlers that directly address Brown’s self diagnosed weaknesses. Brown knew what was coming tonight. He had diagnosed the areas that could cause the Sixers' second home defeat of the season. It didn’t matter.
Brooklyn defeated Philadelphia 127-124, on the back of a career-high 39 points from Dinwiddie and a robust Nets performance that posted a 124.6 offensive rating. The Nets picked the Sixers defence apart, in a manner just as Brown foreshadowed: pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll generated open looks for Brooklyn.
With Dinwiddie and Russell’s dribble penetration leading the way, the Sixers weak side defence collapsed and open threes followed. Brooklyn shot 50% on their 28 three-point attempts. Postgame, it was a familiar tune from Brown.
“We struggle with this type of team. We did tonight.”
Over the past six games, Philadelphia’s team defence has morphed into one of the league’s best. The line of demarcation was Philadelphia’s game in Brooklyn on November 25th. The Sixers defence got scorched that night, but had rebounded to post the NBA’s third-best defence since. Tonight offered a cold dose of déjà vu for Philadelphia. Their head coach felt it, as did their star players.
“They always get the better of us,” Joel Embiid said in the aftermath. “I don’t know, we seem to make every guard look like a freaking Hall of Famer.
“I just think it doesn’t take away the how hard we play. I thought tonight we played hard. They got hot, and we shot the ball pretty well today.”
Ben Simmons, who finished with 22 points, eight rebounds, seven assist and four steals in 35 minutes, claims the Sixers woes rest with an inability to communicate.
“I think it’s just communication on our end,” Simmons explained. “We just need to communicate more when we play this team. It’s been the same thing every time we play them.”
The communication issues Simmons references were highlighted over the last nine minutes of the third quarter. Brooklyn scored 35 points and buffered a lead that would prove to be definitive. There was certainly some great shot making during this run, from Dinwiddie especially, but Philadelphia's defence was very bad. There is no sugarcoating that fact. Simple motions caused havoc, across every level, and the defence cratered.
“I think that some of it was bad defence,” Brown added postgame. “Some of it was let down schematically, some of our good shooters still getting off shots.
“I think it’s a hybrid of them making some shots, us being a C- at times with our aggression and maybe a C schematically trying to execute a game with their individual players. I would put some blame proportionally all over the place.”
Dinwiddie deserves credit for leveraging the Sixers porous resistance into a trademark evening. His heat check continued postgame, as the Nets’ sixth man compared himself to the best shooter currently playing in the NBA.
"If I had two threes in a row I feel like Steph [Curry]. I had a couple threes, boy I tell you I feel like I was 6-foot-3 and light skin. I wasn’t about to stop shooting after that."
Butler missed tonight’s game with a right groin strain. Given the results, his return can’t come soon enough. Simmons admitted it was difficult taking the floor without his new All-Star running mate.
“You get used to a guy being there and then two guys are out that you’re used to having in there. Just means that the other guys need to step up and fill that role, whether it’s coming in on defence and rebounding. Could be little things, but I think everybody just needs to be accountable; myself and everybody.”
While Brown and his Sixers are accurately identifying their weaknesses, work is required before those same flaws can be overcome.