PHILADELPHIA — Brett Brown found it early on: a way of coping with what he’d been tasked to endure as coach of the Philadelphia 76ers and the notorious process. A peace that perhaps only he could’ve found.
It feels like a long time ago. The 26-game losing streak. The nightly bashing fans had a choice of attending. The worst four-year period of any team in NBA history. That stage of the process was genuinely miserable to endure.
So Brown ran. He had to.
“Losing fatigues you,” Brown once told me. “You had to fight it.”
Six days a week, 45 minutes a day. Sometimes with music, sometimes alone with his thoughts. Once the Sixers started winning this season, Brown kept up the routine. It’s all part of it.
“I run faster now,” Brown joked after Philadelphia blasted the Miami Heat 130-103 on Saturday in Game 1 of their first playoff game in six years.
“For whatever reason, I have found peace with what we have been doing since I’ve had the job,” Brown told ESPN. “We have tried to stay steady throughout it all. And I hope I still do. I really mean that. You had to have a vision and a calling. But we want more. Ultimately, we’re trying to grow something that can produce a championship.”
The coach in him knows Saturday was only one win, that they’ll need to build off that win for this whole endeavor — the four years of YOLO-tanking to get players at the top of the draft such as Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Markelle Fultz and Dario Saric who could develop into superstar, championship-caliber players — to be called a success.
So after the game, Brown was already on to scheming for the adjustments the Heat will inevitably make before Monday’s Game 2. The Sixers won this game by pushing the pace and shooting the lights out from beyond the 3-point arc (18-for-28, 64 percent).
Their 130 points were the most Miami has ever given up in a playoff game and the most the 76ers have scored in a playoff game since 1986.
This series was always going to be influenced by pace of play. Simply put, Philly likes to play fast, while Miami milks the clock and slows things down. According to ESPN Stats & Information, since Embiid went down because of a fractured left orbital bone and a concussion on March 28, the Sixers led the league in pace at 106.1 possessions per 48 minutes. Even when Embiid played, though, the Sixers ranked fifth in the league in pace of play.
Miami on the other hand, was the fifth-slowest team in the league at 97.8 possessions per 48 minutes.
In the playoffs, pace generally slows down and teams need to execute in the half court. That seemed to be the case in the first half, as the Heat held the Sixers to 56 points on just 39 percent shooting from the field.
The Hawks castoff responded with 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting from the field and seven rebounds in the third quarter on his way to a 17-point, 14-rebound night. Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli were both acquired by the Sixers after being bought out by the obviously tanking Hawks. On Saturday night, they combined for 42 points, seven 3-pointers and 16 rebounds off the bench.
“I think it’s all about fitting in the right situation,” Ilyasova said. “Me and Marco, the way this team plays, we fit in perfectly in the system.”
Ilyasova said he also considered signing with the Milwaukee Bucks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors after his buyout from the Hawks. But Ilyasova’s experience with Philadelphia last season, knowing how much talent was developing and the system it ran, made it an easy choice.
“When you look at the locker room and see the guys we have, obviously when Jo [Embiid] gets back, the sky’s the limit,” Ilyasova said.
That’s how it felt after Game 1. After the four years of losing. After extending this 17-game win streak that has the entire city buzzing. It has been a hell of a year in Philadelphia already, with the Eagles winning the Super Bowl and Villanova coasting to its second NCAA title in three years. It’s also too soon to get ahead of the process for these young Sixers.
“They don’t get two wins, three wins for this. It’s one win,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game.
JJ Redick describes the impact the home crowd made in Philadelphia’s first game of the NBA playoffs.
Somehow the Heat have to find a way to get more out of center Hassan Whiteside, who played only 12 minutes and scored two points. Spoelstra explained it as a decision because of matchups. But as the highest-paid player on the team, it’s hard to see the Heat winning a series without a more significant contribution from him.
Then there’s Dwyane Wade, who was presumably being saved for the playoffs. He played only 19 minutes Saturday despite hitting 4 of 7 shots and dishing out four assists. If the Heat are going to play the games on their terms, as Spoelstra suggested they must to get back in the series, there also has to be a larger role for Wade.
Those are adjustments and storylines for Game 2, though.
Saturday night was about the long journey everyone in Philadelphia has taken to get to this night.
It poured out from the crowd all night.