Brad Stevens is lauded as a coaching savant, but his brilliance on the sideline can at times be more subtle than overwhelmingly obvious.
Boston took a practically insurmountable 3-0 lead in the second round series on the strength of Stevens’ late-game coaching, which included two beautiful play calls after timeouts.
The first came at the end of regulation when the Celtics were down by two with 26 seconds left.
With Philadelphia switching on all screens, Stevens drew up a play in which all five Boston players were near the 3-point line, leaving the paint wide open when Jaylen Brown set a back pick, only to dive to the basket where he received a lob and finished a contested layup.
Brad Stevens BRILLIANT End of Game SOB to tie the game: pic.twitter.com/hOdp2aNXRJ— Half Court Hoops (@HalfCourtHoops) May 5, 2018
The second crucial play call came with the Celtics down by one and 8.4 seconds left in overtime.
The 76ers switched on screens again, which Stevens capitalised on again by drawing Robert Covington onto Al Horford in the paint. Horford shielded Covington from the basket, caught the overhead lob and finished a point-blank look that would be the game-winner.
BRAD STEVENS GENIUS End of Game Again: pic.twitter.com/mgJnJlOlKZ— Half Court Hoops (@HalfCourtHoops) May 5, 2018
Afterward, Stevens’ players credited their coach’s ingenuity.
“Brad is a genius, man. Unbelievable,” Horford told ESPN immediately after Boston’s victory. “Sometimes he draws stuff up, and I look at it, I’m like [confused]. But Marcus [Morris] delivered it, great pass, I missed some shots that I normally make there, but I made that one, so it was good.”
Morris added: “That man Brad Stevens is a guru. He might have the best out-of-bounds plays I’ve ever seen. He called the switch [that got Horford on Covington] and knew it was going to happen.”
Stevens has deservedly earned credit for a multitude of reasons and his after-timeout plays are just one factor in why he’s been so successful as a coach.
It’s been a fun ride, but it’s time for the Philadelphia 76ers to Process this: they still have a long way to go to get where they want.
Declarations that the 76ers’ rebuild is complete and title contention will be a regularity going forward were as premature as the confetti shot off at Wells Fargo Center at the end of regulation in the Boston Celtics’ 101-98 overtime win in Game 3 of the second round series.
Winning 52 games and a first-round series in a season where Ben Simmons put together a Rookie of the Year campaign and Joel Embiid stayed relatively healthy is a massive success for a franchise that was trapped in the lottery as recently as a year ago.
That success came faster than anticipated, which is why expectations were (justifiably) raised ahead of the playoffs. And with how wide open the East looked due to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ struggles, the Toronto Raptors’ unreliable nature and the Celtics’ injury woes, it actually appeared as if the stars were aligning for Philadelphia to reach the NBA Finals.
But the second round against Boston has splashed some cold water on Process truthers and provided much-needed perspective on where the 76ers are right now.
An argument can be made that Philadelphia’s current predicament of being down 3-0 in the series has more to do with the Celtics than it does with the 76ers’ limitations. After all, playoffs are often about matchups and Philadelphia just looked like world-beaters en route to a gentleman’s sweep over Miami a round earlier. It’s not crazy to think the 76ers might be faring better if they were playing Cleveland or Toronto, based on the strengths and weaknesses of those teams.
Nevertheless, Boston has exposed Philadelphia’s deficiencies in ways that aren’t unique to just them. And it starts with the 76ers two cornerstones: Simmons and Embiid.
Aside from the one-point stinker he had in Game 2, Simmons has been his usual self scoring-wise in the series, averaging 17.0 points on 56.0 per cent shooting. But those stats don’t begin to tell how the Celtics have corralled him in the half-court and leveraged not just inability to shoot, but his unwillingness to.
It may only seem like a subtle difference, but Boston’s advantage of completely ignoring Simmons when he’s beyond the arc has allowed them to tweak their defensive positioning to the point they can simultaneously cover the paint and stick with Philadelphia’s shooters – essentially playing five-on-four on occasion.
By keeping Simmons in front of them and then challenging him to score over their long defenders when he drives, the Celtics have shut off a lot of drive-and-kick opportunities. Boston haven’t been as successful when back-up T.J. McConnell has been on the floor – McConnell is plus-19 in the series while Simmons is minus-19 – because of his quickness and ability to keep the defence somewhat honest.
McConnell plays his role extremely well, but he can only help to a certain extent. You know who would be a perfect complement to Simmons and give the 76ers what they need? The Markelle Fultz that came out of college, before… whatever it is that derailed his rookie season.
It’s way too early to say Fultz won’t ever be that, but it’s also no sure thing to say he’ll return to what he was, let alone develop into a star. If he does, he could be the missing link and final piece of the 76ers’ puzzle. But again, that’s a big ‘if’.
As far as Embiid, this second round has shown he’s far from a finished product.
He’s averaging 24.3 points against the Celtics, but it’s his 43.5 per cent shooting that’s been more telling of how the series has gone for him. Boston have been mostly content with leaving Aron Baynes or Al Horford in single coverage against him and living with post-up after post-up. Embiid is an absolute load to deal with, but his post game still leaves a lot to be desired.
And on the other end of the floor, the Celtics have sapped his rim protection by dragging him out near the perimeter with bigs who can knock down jumpers.
Embiid and Simmons are just 24 and 21, respectively, so it would be foolish to assume they won’t get better. Their shortcomings in this series shouldn’t be viewed as a failure, but rather as an indication of the room they still have to grow.
The Process, insofar as the methodology of tanking to acquire draft picks, may be over.
However, the next phase – going from good to great – has just begun.
In what was as close to a must-win for Toronto as possible without it technically being a do-or-die game, the Raptors felt the full wrath of James, who stomped on their hopes at the Air Canada Centre with 43 points and 14 assists in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 128-110 win.
It was the first 40-point, 14-assist effort in playoff history and it was fitting it came on Toronto’s home floor, where James has owned the Raptors with five straight postseason victories.
This is the risk Toronto ran when they couldn’t take advantage of an inefficient shooting night by James in the series opener, when he was 12-of-30 from the field.
In Game 2, LeBron was simply on and when that’s the case, there’s no defence in the world that can slow down the best player on Earth.
James shot 19-of-28, including 7-of-11 on fadeaways which he utilised often in the second half with great success.
Raptors forward OG Anunoby wasn’t nearly as effective guarding James as he was in Game 1, when LeBron had 17 points, six assists and shot 8-of-19 in 48 possessions.
With Anunoby on him in Game 2, James had 20 points on 9-of-13 shooting, while dishing 11 assists in 41 possessions.
Pascal Siakam, who defended James the second-most of any Raptors player, fared no better as he allowed 17 points on 7-of-9 from the field in 19 possessions.
LeBron tonight:— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 4, 2018
6 of 9 in isolation
6 of 7 out of pick and roll
3 of 6 in the post
2 of 2 in transition
1 of 1 in spot-up
While James was unsurprisingly phenomenal, the Cavaliers received an encouraging performance from Kevin Love, who woke up to have 31 points, 11 rebounds and shot 11-of-21 overall. Prior to Game 2, Love was averaging just 10.9 points on 31.9 per cent shooting.
The Cavaliers have everything working in their favour as the series moves to Cleveland, which means Toronto are in danger of suffering a sweep at the hands of James and Co for a second straight year.
Falling in the second round to a team that has consistently been a roadblock for them would be enough of a failure, but if the Raptors get swept, they’ll have to take a hard look in the mirror in the offseason after making such little progress following a promising campaign.