A matchup against the Boston Celtics might not seem like the ideal time for experimentation.
But, as the Sixers adjust to their revamped roster, head coach Brett Brown is determined to learn exactly what he has and how he can best equip his team for a deep playoff run.
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It cost him Tuesday night in a 112-109 loss to the Celtics (see observations).
For Brown, it's not as simple as throwing out perhaps the best starting five in the Eastern Conference and letting them play. The nuances of rotations, play calls and defensive concepts don't disappear now that he has Tobias Harris on his team.
Brown decided Tuesday to insert Jonathon Simmons into the rotation, gave Furkan Korkmaz 10 minutes, and sat James Ennis. He said before the game there's a "quiet tournament" between those three for minutes.
The decision to play Korkmaz is certainly open to criticism. Korkmaz is essentially a three-point specialist shooting 33 percent from long range, and playing him makes little sense against a Celtics team excellent at exploiting defensive mismatches. In 10 minutes, Korkmaz was a team-worst minus-eight.
Boban Marjanovic played 10 minutes backing up Joel Embiid despite unfavorable defensive matchups against Al Horford and Daniel Theis for the plodding Marjanovic. Though Marjanovic posted four points and six rebounds, there were a couple of instances when the Celtics drew him away from the basket and capitalized on the lack of a rim protector.
Brown was frank in saying he didn't have a ton of confidence in either of those decisions. He's figuring it out on the fly.
The final third, as I've admitted … the tournament, looking at different people, is always on my mind, trying to figure that out when it matters most in April. Just like the usage of Boban [Marjanovic]. At times tonight you think, ‘well, might you get Jonah [Bolden] in the game?' As I admitted in the pre-press conference, there's a tolerance level where I have where I want to learn. I want to learn as much as I can about the group that we have and all these things with Jonathon [Simmons] and Boban and Jonah, etc., etc. is all on the table for me to do that.
It's not as if Brown was terribly outcoached by Brad Stevens or the Sixers looked clueless on the court. If Tobias Harris had a better shooting night (he had 10 points on 4 for 14 shooting) or Joel Embiid scored more than eight points through the first three quarters, there's still a good chance the Sixers would have beaten the Celtics.
Embiid ultimately managed 23 points and 14 rebounds, but he took the blame for his slow start against Al Horford.
"He's not doing anything," Embiid said of Horford. "He's just on me. I was sleepwalking for three quarters and that's on me. That's on me. That has nothing to do with anybody."
Though the matchups for Embiid vs. Horford and for Ben Simmons vs. the long, athletic Celtics are difficult, Brown dismissed the notion that he has any trepidation about playing Boston, even though the Sixers have lost 10 of their last 12 games vs. the Celtics.
"No. Not even close," Brown said. "We have a whole new team. We've been with each other for a minute. I don't even think like that at all. I'm excited to play these guys."
Three games is obviously not nearly long enough to lose patience with how Brown is handling his new team.
But, with 25 games left in the regular season, how long will Brown wait to learn the right lineup pairings, the right members of his rotation, the right way to coach his team?
"As long as it takes," he said.
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