While it would not necessarily be misleading to say the Sixers are on the verge of elimination, all that’s technically happened so far in their first-round series against the Celtics is Boston holding home court.
Game 3 will be Friday night at 6:30 p.m. inside of the NBA’s Disney World “bubble.” There will be no Wells Fargo Crowd to inspire, encourage, shame, or provide whatever special recipe helped the Sixers go 29-2 at home before the coronavirus pandemic halted the season.
“You can look at it both ways,” Al Horford said in a video conference call with reporters on Thursday afternoon. “For both teams it’s neutral, and for us it’s really finding that drive and that energy within our group. That’s what we have to do. This is a very important game for us tomorrow.”
Horford was removed from the starting lineup Wednesday night in favor of Matisse Thybulle and managed just four points and two rebounds in 23 minutes. Tobias Harris, the team’s most expensive player, shot 4 for 15 from the floor in the 128-101 Game 2 blowout. Nobody on the Sixers appears very good right now besides Joel Embiid, who posted 34 points and 10 rebounds, but Harris, Horford and the front office that gave them massive contracts look especially poor in the wake of Game 2.
Head coach Brett Brown, meanwhile, believes schematic adjustments must be paired with qualities like internal motivation.
"It gets to … human qualities and obvious human opinion type things like character,” he said of not having a true home game. “A competitive pride, a belief that the team has more to do, that they truly have the ability to come back and win. There is a spirit that can’t be dented. It’s not always about, ‘We better come out on Kemba (Walker) in pick-and-rolls’ or ‘Let’s get Tobias in open court.’ I think that everybody’s got a breaking point. I feel like, for me, the thing that I’m leaning on the most is there is enough talent, there is enough character, there are enough positive things to find a way to win.
“It’s true, you’re not going to walk into the Wells Fargo Center, (where) we had the best home crowd in the league, the best home record in the league, and feed from that. So it’s gotta be internally driven, it’s gotta be not falsely manufactured. There needs to be a genuine belief. That’s what I feel, that’s my mission to try to help create that or uncover that."
Asked about the reasons why he thinks his team has the character to handle this situation, Brown was honest in portraying the Sixers as lacking a fiery, ultra-vocal leader. While he doesn’t think that’s problematic, this combination of personalities hasn’t meshed effectively. Josh Richardson has publicly identified issues with effort and inadequate accountability. He led a players-only “dialogue” in February and, at the time, said becoming more of a vocal leader might “be his thing” on his new team.
“That’s how it has to be for us to be the best team that we can be,” Richardson said on Feb. 7. “I know it’s not comfortable. You know sometimes that it’s not going to be comfortable, but I think once we get past that threshold of just wanting to be in a comfortable range, I think we’ll step to another level.”
So, where exactly will the Sixers find the necessary character now?
“I think it’s going to come from different voices,” Brown said. “There is nobody in the locker room that is a kick a chair, swing a towel, flip a desk type of guy. And that’s not a bad thing — we’re all wired differently. And so Joel’s going to have his way where he can make the point or reinforce the point. … And a lot of time with Joel, it comes from on-court performance. Al Horford has the ability and willingness in a locker room to share a story of his 12 years in the NBA playoffs. Tobias Harris, who’s just (an) emerging voice, whether it’s talking about racial injustice, whether it’s talking about, ‘We better do better on defense,’ (whether) it’s a team meeting. He’s really emerging into that type of role.
“And then you’ve got the two young guys: Matisse Thybulle, who starts as a rookie in an NBA playoff game, and Shake (Milton) came from the G League and is our starting point guard. They too have a little bit of a story to tell. I think it comes from different voices, from different places. But ultimately, it’s gotta come. And I think that it will.”
If it doesn’t come, it won’t reflect well on Brown or his team. The roster problems can’t be addressed until the offseason — and that’ll be a daunting task — but the current members of the Sixers still have control over how exactly this season ends.
“I think that we need to make our presence felt a little more defensively,” Horford said, “and really (take) on the challenge. That is something that we talked about today in practice and something that we want to make sure that we are playing the way we know we are capable of, really setting the tone and really making it hard for them, and that is going to be our focus. Our backs are against the wall and we need to respond tomorrow.”