Game Preview | With Regular Season Set to End, Brown's Playoff Goal Fulfilled
On the eve of the first day of training camp, the 76ers got away.
The destination wasn’t particularly far from team headquarters in Camden, New Jersey; just a couple miles across the river, to a Center City hotel.
Nevertheless, Brett Brown, on the verge of beginning his fifth season as Sixers head coach, felt it would be productive to gather all his players together in the same place the night before embarking on a long, grueling, 82-game journey.
The next morning, before the Sixers drove back across the Ben Franklin Bridge to their training complex for Media Day obligations, everyone reported to one of the hotel’s rooms for a team breakfast.
It was in this setting that Brown, in clear, direct, straightforward fashion, laid out the mission for an anticipated 2017-2018 campaign.
But before saying anything of substance to the group surrounding him, Brown wanted to show his players a visual first. He fired up a PowerPoint presentation, and this was the first slide the Sixers saw.
Clean, and to the point:
For many of the players in the room, the NBA Playoff logo was a symbol of the not-yet-attained, an image more likely associated with off-season television watching than a prestigious decal affixed to a team’s home court from mid-April through June.
Brown, however, is deeply familiar with the playoffs, despite missing out on them his first four years in Philadelphia. His tenure as an assistant in San Antonio was akin to a master class in post-season basketball. He was part of 12 playoff runs in as many seasons with the Spurs, five trips to the Finals, and earned four championship rings.
So, when Brown proceeded to overtly tell the Sixers in their first formal meeting of the season that clinching a playoff berth would be the quest in the months ahead, the statement didn’t fall on deaf ears.
“Before training camp, we stayed in a hotel for one night,” said second-year Sixer Justin Anderson. “A lot of guys didn’t understand why. We all didn’t really know why, [but] we were like, ‘Alright, whatever. That’s what we’re doing.’
“The next morning, we wake up, and we have team breakfast, and the first slide was ‘Playoffs,’ with the NBA Playoffs logo. From there, [Brown] got us all bought in. We had one goal in mind, and that was to make the playoffs.”
Not too long after declaring this objective to his players, Brown, at the Sixers training complex, met with reporters for his first official media availability of the fall. In that forum too, just like he did at the hotel, Brown pretty much came right out and said it: “Our goal is to make the playoffs.”
With 1 regular season game left a few hours from now, and chance to make history with season-ending 16th straight win, plus clinch East 3-seed, a trip back in time to 1st day of camp.
— Brian Seltzer (@brianseltzer) April 11, 2018
The comments revealed a different approach from past seasons, of sorts, in respect to how Brown framed certain types of goals, at least publicly.
In terms of fundamental matters like playing better defense, or cutting down on turnovers, Brown had never been shy about quantifying numbers or rankings he wanted the Sixers to achieve.
But in instances in which the topic of conversation ever drifted towards subjects like timelines for winning, or moving up in the standings, Brown was often reluctant to get into specifics. He considered such exercises to be counterproductive.
Why, then, did Brown have the confidence to place significant expectations on this year’s edition of the Sixers?
For starters, Brown knew he was going to have more firepower at his disposal this season compared to his first four years. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons would be healthy, the team had added another No. 1 pick in Markelle Fultz via the draft, and there were bonafide veterans signed over the summer. There would be institutional and cultural carryover from returning players, as well.
Reflecting recently on his initial remarks about wanting to make the playoffs, though, Brown also indicated he felt a sense of obligation to do something that would help kickstart a new, important stage of the Sixers’ development.
“I delivered it more with the belief, ‘Of course, that has to be our goal,’” Brown said last weekend. “I felt, what’s the word I used, ‘cowardly’ - I felt it was a gutless thing to walk into a team, and look at a bunch of young guys and say anything else but that. Of course that’s our goal. Our goal is to make the playoffs.”
At the time, Brown fully understood that setting the bar at that height for such an unproven team would be viewed by some as a questionable decision. He was comfortable with the tone he chose to set.
“In the light of day, it makes me feel good that I chose to do that,” Brown said six months later. “That’s my job, to find and strike a balance of high goals, goals that we want to try to achieve.”
While outsiders might have considered Brown’s post-season goal to be somewhat lofty or bold, or of the too-much-too-soon variety, his audience at the team breakfast wasn’t surprised to hear the word “playoffs” uttered right out of the game (Brown said he referenced the playoffs in the very first sentence of his speech).
Like the players themselves, Brown was a fixture at the Sixers training complex during the 2017 off-season. From his courtside office, he had a front row seat for all the voluntary workouts the Sixers held in June and September.
It was during these sessions that the nurturing of a purposeful group mindset with razor-sharp focus started to take root.
“I stayed around all summer. I saw his preparation, I saw the work he put in, just being in the gym everyday,” Anderson said of Brown. “He was always in his office watching film. He was always around the facility, and I knew he was working on how we could be better as a team.”
Robert Covington has played in more games for Brown, nearly 300 of them, than anyone else. Over the last four years, the two have dreamed big while discussing their respective visions for the franchise.
“I’ve had many talks with Coach, and he’s been talking about building that [playoff] atmosphere for a long time,” said Covington. “That’s the ultimate goal. The Process years were about getting us to this moment, and our ultimate goal isn’t just getting there, we want to win. He’s set that foundation from the very beginning.”
In hindsight, Brown clearly had a sense of what he was doing when he addressed his players at that team breakfast back in September. The remarkable season the Sixers have since produced would make it impossible to reach any other conclusion.
For the first time since 2004-2005, the club has registered a 50-win season. It’s also established a new mark for consecutive wins in a single-season, with 15.
And yes, of course, the Sixers are headed back to the playoffs, with home court advantage, no less.
Brown’s hopes have been fulfilled.
“It’s a statement to the locker room,” Brown said Tuesday in Atlanta, where, after the Sixers’ latest victory, he was asked about the team’s impending playoff appearance. “It makes us feel good.”
Then, in the same breath, it was on to another goal.
“We all are greedy,” Brown said. “We want more.”
For now, that the Sixers have simply followed through on Brown’s original playoff pursuit should be considered another satisfying step in the right direction.
As for what’s next, we’ll just have to keep following along.
One last time in the regular season in front of raucous, die-hard fans who have combined to sell out every home game to-date, the Sixers will take the floor at The Center, hosting the Milwaukee Bucks (44-37) Wednesday in a pairing that could offer a sneak peak for the opening round of the playoffs.
Heading into game no. 82 of the campaign, the Sixers were situated third in the Eastern Conference, while Milwaukee occupied the sixth spot. Based on seeding, that would mean the two teams would square off this weekend in Game 1 of a quarterfinal series.
The Sixers and Bucks have done battle three times previously this year, with the home team prevailing each time. Should the Sixers triumph Wednesday night, they would set an NBA record for the longest winning streak in history - 16 games - to end a regular season.
Of note for Milwaukee, two-time All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo has missed the club’s previous two games with right ankle soreness. The Bucks, however, won both outings.
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