Brett Brown’s days as head coach of the 76ers could be numbered after Philadelphia was eliminated by the Boston Celtics on Sunday. Kim Klement/Pool Photo via AP

Over the last calendar year, Tobias Harris has evolved from a player with an uncertain role and an uncertain future to one of the most respected members of the Sixers’ locker room. On a team built around two young and insular stars, the emergence of the veteran forward as an emotional leader has filled a void that would not otherwise have been easily solved.

So as Harris lay splayed on the court on Sunday afternoon, a dollop of red visible on his head, you got the sense that this underwhelming Sixers season had taken its final, fatal turn.

Barely three minutes after Harris walked groggily off the court following an ugly fall late in the third quarter, a three-point Sixers deficit had ballooned to 14, and a spirited effort to extend their season had become an exercise in playing out the string.

“Up until that moment,” their head coach would say later, “I felt pretty good about what we were doing.”

Give them credit for getting up. If this was indeed Brett Brown’s final game as Sixers head coach, he will at least leave the organization knowing that his team played hard for him until the end. Trailing in the series three games to none, playing without one of their centerpiece players, having spent six weeks living out of a hotel room at Disney World, the Sixers had every reason to turn their attention toward life outside the NBA bubble. Instead, they imbued the final four quarters with a characteristic that their head coach preaches most.

Brown, a Maine native who won a state title as a player at South Portland in 1979, is the son of Maine high school coaching legend Bob Brown.

“Spirit” is a word that Brown has repeated hundreds, maybe thousands of times since arriving in Philadelphia. From the opening possession of Game 4 through the closing seconds of the 110-106 loss, the Sixers brought it. The 32 points they scored in the first quarter were the second most that the Celtics had allowed in an opening period since Feb. 13. They held Jayson Tatum to 12 points before Harris’ injury with 2:40 left in the third quarter. In Games 1 and 2, Tatum and Jaylen Brown had combined to score 114 points on 37-for-70 shooting. In Games 3 and 4, the Sixers held them to 80 points on 28-for-68 shooting.

No player embodied Brown’s ethos more than Harris. Less than an hour after he was lying motionless on the court with what appeared to be a devastating injury, he was checking back into the game with five minutes remaining and his team trailing by 12. Harris would hit a couple of buckets to help the Sixers close the deficit to four, saying afterward that he decided to give it a go because he felt OK enough to play.

“I’d rather go down with my guys than sitting in the back,” said Harris, who finished with 20 points after struggling mightily in the first three games of the series.

Yet the Sixers have arrived at a point where gumption is no longer enough. It’s a realization that seems likely to be shared by many of the players in the locker room. As conspicuous as their respect for Brown’s character and leadership style may be, so too is the muted nature of their endorsements of his future. The aftermath of Sunday’s loss was notable for its absence of full-throated defenses.

Joel Embiid chose to highlight his respect for Brown as an individual while deferring judgment on his coaching performance to management.

“He’s an even better person than a coach. He cares about his players, he cares about people that work with him,” Embiid said. “It’s beyond basketball. No matter what happens, I don’t make the decisions, I don’t know what’s gonna happen, I trust management and all that stuff. He’s gonna be a great friend no matter what.”

Likewise, Harris elected to shift the focus away from the organization’s most pressing question.

“I’ll take ownership on myself trying to be a leader of this team and not being able to be successful in the playoffs,” he said. “Before we go that way, the ownership’s gotta come from the individual.”

Brown’s seven-year run through two eras of roster building has been one of the more remarkable tenures in recent NBA coaching history. Given our tendency to judge success in a binary manner, it might be helpful to remind ourselves of all that he has accomplished since Sam Hinkie handed him the reins. There are a lot of coaches who would have been unable to maintain the level of harmony that existed in Brown’s locker room despite the prodigious egos and clashing skill sets of its most important members. There are a lot of coaches whose resumes would not include a last-second Game 7 loss against the eventual NBA champions.

While the Sixers have clearly arrived at a juncture where a new voice and a new approach are the most realistic means of progress, they should also recognize that the future can easily become a place in which things get worse. Coaching might be the clearest area for improvement, particularly when you consider Brown’s 1-8 postseason record against the Celtics’ Brad Stevens.

But to label it the biggest culprit behind this disappointing season is to place an unwarranted level of faith in the Sixers’ personnel decision-makers. Brown might have been on board with the decision to sign Al Horford and to replace JJ Redick with Josh Richardson and to head into a season without addressing glaring deficiencies in shooting and ballhandling. But, in the end, making personnel decisions is not his job.

As Brown addressed the media on Sunday night, he sounded like a man resigned to his fate.

“I hear your question,” he said when asked about his future. “Right now, my thoughts are really with the game and the series that has just gone by. That’s really where my head is at.”

Yet there was an unmistakable sense of finality in his voice. At one point, a reporter asked Brown if he thought that circumstances had allowed people to see him at his best.

“No,” he responded, before declining to elaborate and thanking the reporter for asking the question. Later, he bid another questioner adieu by saying, “You’re a good man.”

Brown is a good one himself, and it will be a shame if the Sixers hold him alone responsible for the consequences of three years of failed decision-making. Whatever his future holds, there will be no dishonor in his epitaph. His players played hard. It just wasn’t enough.

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