76ers

Is road trip crucial for Brett Brown's job?

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Is road trip crucial for Brett Brown's job?

Each week, our resident basketball analysts will discuss some of the hottest topics involving the Sixers.

Running the Give and Go are NBC Sports Philadelphia anchor/reporter Marshall Harris, NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com producer/reporters Matt Haughton and Paul Hudrick.

This week, we'll take a look at whether the Sixers’ five-game road trip is crucial for Brett Brown’s job security.

Harris
It's only five games — that's less than 1/16th of the season. But it's funny how segments of a schedule and the results of particular segments can make or break a coaching stop. Except this is more than a "stop" for Brett Brown. As the head coach with the lowest win percentage in NBA history, it could very well be make or break time. The Sixers head into the five-game stretch away from Wells Fargo Center losers of four straight and eight of nine. After a 13-9 start, they're now a season worst-tying three games below .500 (14-17). This stretch is huge because of the stated goal by Brown and his players of making the playoffs.

Joel Embiid's day-to-day status is clearly up in the air and we already know he's going to miss at least one game against the Suns or Nuggets because it's a back-to-back to close out the year. They're 1-7 without him and have already lost with him to the Suns.

Simply put, Brown has to have his young team find a way to win at least two of these games. A 1-4 trip would leave the Sixers 15-21. Six games under is a deep hole to climb out of considering the East has proven to be way more formidable than I expected at the outset. I thought 39 games would be enough for the 8-seed. But a quick glance at the standings shows nine teams over .500 and the Sixers can ill afford to lose ground.

Here's the bottom line: whether Embiid can play or not, Brown has to have his team ready to win without him. Ben Simmons is taking a step in the right direction with his take-charge attitude in the team's home loss to Toronto. But they have to have results. Embiid is going to miss more time. We know this. That can't be the excuse of why they miss the playoffs. I'm not saying Brown will lose his job short of a 0-5 road trip. What I am saying is that if they don't start winning some of these games without JoJo, it won't add up to enough wins for Brown to reach his stated playoff goal and be back next season.

To me, Brown's coaching seat is lukewarm heading into this trip. No one expects them to become just the second team in 13 games to beat the Raptors in Toronto. But the rest of those games don't have the same degree of difficulty. The Sixers better win a couple. If they don't? That seat will be scalding to the touch when the Sixers return to Philadelphia.

Haughton
While the Sixers’ holiday road trip is always an important one during the season, I don’t think this edition will make or break Brown’s immediate future with the team.

First, the Sixers have recently been hit with a wave of injuries. The biggest of those, literally, is Joel Embiid. Brown’s squad is an entirely different group with the young star anchoring the paint. That’s in addition to JJ Redick, Robert Covington, T.J. McConnell, Trevor Booker and, of course, Markelle Fultz all missing games in the past two weeks.

It’s hard to judge Brown when he’s not playing with a full deck.

Still, the biggest reason I don’t believe this five-game trip will decide Brown’s fate is that the Sixers don’t have any significant options outside of him at the moment. Lloyd Pierce, Billy Lange and Jim O'Brien are all fine assistants, but Sixers management isn’t about to hand them the keys, even on an interim basis, to this up-and-coming team. And I don’t believe the Sixers would go outside of the organization for a candidate (such as David Fizdale) during the middle of a season.

Unless the bottom completely falls out on the Sixers during this road trip, I fully expect Brown to make it through the regular season. Whether he’s around after that is anyone’s guess. 

Hudrick
At some point, Brown might be playing with a full deck. Right now, he clearly is not.

It’s hard to judge Brown when you see how flawed this roster is without Embiid or No. 1 overall pick Fultz. Embiid is this team’s best player on both ends of the floor. He is an elite talent and his presence is missed every time he’s not out there.

While Fultz has a long way to go to prove he’s an elite NBA talent, he did show something nobody else on this team has: the ability to create his own shot. Sure, it was only six games, but Fultz was able to take NBA defenders off the dribble and get to the rim or create space for a shot (that he probably didn’t take).

“Pace and space” is a great concept. But when you’re forced to play in the half court, having a beast in the post and a playmaker that can create off the dribble comes in handy.

Brown’s job is safe on this road trip and I’d guess through the rest of the season at the very least.

Joel Embiid has trouble with mask, not Heat in Sixers' Game 3 win

Joel Embiid has trouble with mask, not Heat in Sixers' Game 3 win

BOX SCORE

MIAMI — "We're not here to make friends. We're here to win the series." 

With those two sentences, Joel Embiid made it known what he is all about in the playoffs.

The big man fought to return from an orbital fracture to help the Sixers win, and that’s exactly what he did in his first game since March 28. Embiid led the team with 23 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three blocks and a steal over 30 minutes in his NBA postseason debut … while wearing a mask with goggles (see story)

“I was excited,” Embiid said following the Sixers’ 128-108 victory Thursday in Game 3 (see observations). “Worked really hard for it. Promised the city that and made it happen. I was kind of sad that I couldn’t play in that first at home because we have a special connection. But I’m glad, came back today and we got a win.” 

Embiid sent a message — he is back, and not backing down. Sitting at the podium with a calm confidence, he talked about everything from his desire to return to in-game chippiness to defending his teammates. 

“I hate sitting out,” Embiid said. “I felt like it was time to come back, especially after watching how physical the game was, Game 2. I love this moment, I love being physical, I love attacking, I love contact.” 

Returning meant wearing a protective mask on his face. Though irksome in some ways, Embiid noted his game is too strong to be held back. 

“It was difficult,” Embiid said of the mask. “But to me it wasn’t really about getting used to it because at the end of the day, no matter how much it bothers me, I’ve still got to be a basketball player. If the shots aren’t falling and it gets foggy or I can’t see, there’s a lot of different stuff I can do, especially defensively because I feel like I’m the best defensive player in the league.”

There was plenty of contact in Game 3, and his mask wasn’t safe from it either. At one point, Embiid’s goggles landed on the court. Justise Winslow stepped on them, downplaying it after the game. 

“He kept throwing it on the ground, so I don’t know if he didn’t like it or what,” Winslow said. “But I was talking to JoJo, we were smack talking, trash talking, going back and forth. No love lost.”

Embiid didn’t quite see the situation as “throwing it on the ground.” He added an extra punch to the end of his recount. 

“Justise stepped on it and tried to break it with his hands,” Embiid said. “But little do they know is that I have about 50 of them. So it’s going to take much more than that to get me out of the series. 

“I’m going to be a nightmare for them, too.” 

When the game was in hand, Embiid was eager to see the Sixers finish with as large a margin of victory as possible. He thought back to Game 2 when Goran Dragic scored a layup with 1.2 seconds to play, and how Jordan Clarkson had thrown a ball at Dario Saric for scoring similarly during the regular season in Cleveland. So on Thursday, Embiid wanted them to run up the scoreboard. 

“I wish I was there in that Game 2 because I was kind of pissed about it,” Embiid said. “It’s basketball. It’s always good to blow a team out. I think we were up 18 or 20. If you could get that lead up to 22, I think it’s good. I love blowing teams out. I like the fact that we did that.” 

There's less than 48 hours until the Heat will look to bounce back in Game 4 and even up the series. Embiid knows the Sixers are in for a battle. 

And he likes that. 

“Game 4, they’re going to try to do what they did at Game 2, come out and be really, really extra aggressive and try to punch us in the mouth,” Embiid said. “We’ve got to be ready for that and I’ll for sure be ready.” 

Joel Embiid's return sparks Sixers' physical Game 3 win in Miami

Joel Embiid's return sparks Sixers' physical Game 3 win in Miami

BOX SCORE

MIAMI — Joel Embiid is 1-0 in the playoffs.

The Sixers beat the Heat, 128-108, Thursday with their mask-wearing center back in the starting lineup to take a 2-1 lead on the series. 

• Embiid made his long-awaited return, playing in his postseason debut and first game since March 28. Donning a face mask with goggles (see story), Embiid rejoined the starting lineup. He had 23 points, seven rebounds and four assists in 30 minutes. 

He looked eager as well as affected at times by the long layoff from the left orbital fracture and concussion. He was aggressive at getting to the line (and drawing fouls on Hassan Whiteside), but shot 10 for 15 once there. Embiid knocked down threes (3 of 4), at the same time committing a 24-second violation trying to back down to the basket. Considering how long it’s been since he played, Embiid’s conditioning looked better than expected. 

• This game was not decided until the final quarter. The Sixers led, 96-94, after three. Brett Brown started Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Ersan Ilyasova and Embiid to open the fourth. That group outscored the Heat 9-1 to push the lead to 10 and change the tone of the remainder of the game. 

• First it was Kelly Olynyk. Then it was Dwyane Wade. In Game 3, Justise Winslow was the offensive spark plug off the Miami bench. Winslow scored 19 points in the first half, seven more than the Heat’s next leading scorer. He also was an agitator throughout the game, continuing to try to get under the Sixers’ skin as he had done in the previous games. Check out what happened with the goggles from Embiid’s mask.

• Justin Anderson looked like he had been waiting for this defensive assignment all season. Brown tasked him with defending Wade in the first half, and that matchup turned chippy. Anderson and Wade both were called for physical taunting technical fouls after Anderson pushed off on Wade and Wade grabbed his arm and flung him around. Anderson had played less than two minutes in the series prior to Game 3. 

• The game was physical with whistles and double techs throughout the night. Just how physical was it?

• Late in the third quarter, the Sixers rolled out the lineup of T.J. McConnell, Marco Belinelli, Anderson, Ilyasova and Embiid. None of these players are hesitant to mix things up. At one point a play culminated with Embiid and Anderson jumping up to block an Olynyk shot with the Heat forward landing on the ground. 

• Brown had planned to play Markelle Fultz more than the five minutes he clocked in Game 2. That didn’t happen. Fultz was on the court for 4:21 in the first half without a shot attempt (one rebound, one assist, two fouls). McConnell got the backup point guard minutes in the second half. 

• Game 4 will be played at 2:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon on NBCSP in Miami.