Game Preview | Early Adjustment Helps Set Tone for Series

by Brian Seltzer
Sixers.com Reporter

Scene Setter:

Remember the first round of the 1985 Hagler - Hearns fight (coincidentaly staged nearly 33 years ago to the date, on April 15th)?

Brett Brown would probably forgive you if you don’t. Heck, only one player on his current roster - JJ Redick, born a year earlier - was alive at that time.

The middleweight championship bout, in which the two combatants famously started off with a torrid exchange of punches, remains one of Brown’s all-time favorite sporting events, and he felt it was worth referencing heading into the opener of the 76ers’ Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series against the Miami Heat.

In Brown’s mind, the flurry of blows that broke out instantaneously in the Hagler - Hearns clash represented the exact opposite type of pace he’s come to expect from Game 1s in the Playoffs. His 12 trips to the post-season and four championships with the San Antonio Spurs have taught him that usually, the first games of playoff series are “borderline formalities.”

“You feel each other out,” Brown said Saturday, about an hour and a half before tip-off. “The intricacies of adjustments and match-ups, and nuances to plays become more granular as the series unfolds.”

For 24 minutes of basketball Saturday night, his hunch appeared to be spot on. The Sixers and Miami Heat grinded their way through a physical, whistle-heavy first half, with Miami holding the Sixers to 38.8 percent shooting and forcing 10 turnovers.

At the break, the Heat’s lead was 60-56.

When the Sixers returned to the floor for the third quarter, it was clear Brown had a change of heart. He wasn’t going to waste any time, and, regardless of post-season norms, was going to throw a wrinkle into this Game 1.

To try and help the Sixers break free of the slow-it-down, half-court style of play Miami prefers, Brown shuffled his starting line-up, sliding Ersan Ilyasova into the second frontcourt spot alongside Dario Saric, another power forward who boasts “stretch” capabilities.

The move represented the series’ first major adjustment, and it panned out perfectly.

Armed with a mutual knack for the pick-and-pop, Ilaysova and Saric took turns drawing the Heat’s 7-foot rim protector Hassan Whiteside out from underneath the basket. Spacing opened up, and the Sixers’ offense shifted into high gear.

They were able to grab rebounds and get out in transition, they hit threes, they generated driving lanes for lay-ups, and Ben Simmons - with four legit shooters (Robert Covington and JJ Redick the other two) orbiting around him - was able to go into full-fledged downhill attack mode.

Brown’s strategic play involving Ilyasova catalyzed a game-changing 15-0 spurt (during which Ilyasova delivered an early three and a lay-up), and forced Miami to take Whiteside out of the game. He logged only four minutes in the second half, and 12 overall.

"You made the decision, and we were lucky that it helped us,” Brown said after Saturday’s game. “It seems right as we look back on it, and it certainly changed the game for us.”

During the regular season, Brown played Ilyasova with Saric in 16 of the 23 contests that Ilyasova was with the Sixers. On average, their dual stints lasted five minutes, and yielded a plus-1.6 scoring advantage.

In Saturday’s one-sided 130-103 victory over the Heat, the Ilyasova-Saric duo was used for 16 minutes, a stretch that saw the Sixers outscore Miami by five points.

“Obviously, the Playoffs start, and me and Ersan are playing more minutes together,” Saric said Sunday. “I think we’re working very well together on the court.”

That Ilyasova and Saric have a developed chemistry can’t be denied.

Beyond their smooth on-court rapport, the two have a positive, productive relationship.

“He was like my veteran last year, same position, and he was supporting me last season and this season, too,” Saric said.

Brown believes the European pedigree that Ilyasova and Saric share has helped make their bond that much stronger.

“Ersan Ilyasova nurturing Dario and helping him along is true,” said Brown, whose perspective on international hoops was shaped and informed by his time spent with the Australian national team, “but it’s different than an American trying to do the same thing with Dario. I think it’s even a little bit deeper because of the history that Dario recognizes that Ersan has internationally.”

A season ago, during Ilyasova’s first go-round with the Sixers, he and Saric teamed up 38 times. While the plus-minus they produced together averaged out to essentially be a net of zero, Brown felt that in certain situations, the uptempo, small ball frontcourt look worked.

Given the success the tandem had in Game 1, Brown indicated Sunday, prior to the Sixers’ practice in Camden, it would be hard not to deploy the pairing again in Game 2.

“How we use it, I’m not exactly sure, nor would I probably offer it,” Brown said, “[but] I think that it’s clear you’re going to see that pairing again.”

It wasn’t in a Hagler - Hearns Round 1 flurry, but Brown, nonetheless, made calculated tactical choices at a relatively early stage of the Sixers’ first-round clash with Miami. His willingness to go with his instincts, and be aggressive allowed the Sixers to set the series’ tone.

Opponent Outlook:

If Miami hopes to head back to South Florida with a split in hand, a couple of things will have to change.

For starters, coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters, the Heat will need to play Game 2 on their “terms,” and do a better job of handling the “force” the Sixers brought to Game 1.

There’s also the matter of Miami hoping to get more from two of its top contributors, Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside.

An All-Star, Dragic was held to 4 for 14 shooting, stymied in large part by Robert Covington.

“They did their job,” Dragic said of the Sixers.

Whiteside, meanwhile, never really got into a rhythm.

“I have to be more aggressive,” the center told the Miami Herald.

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