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February 23, 2016

Magic 124, Sixers 115: Brown questions effort after defense breaks down for third straight game

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After his 20th-ranked defense surrendered 129 and 121 over the weekend, Brett Brown knew before Tuesday’s game against the Orlando Magic that something needed to change.

“I have no idea what is going on with our group the last two games defensively,” Brown said. “And we need to fix it, we need to come back to who we are.”

They didn’t fix it. In fact, considering the opponent, it probably got a little bit worse.

For the third consecutive game after the NBA All-Star break, the Philadelphia 76ers’ defense was nonexistent. The Magic, a mere 25th in offensive rating, scored 124 points en route to denying the Sixers their ninth win of the season at the Wells Fargo Center.

What has been strange about this stretch isn’t necessarily the losing, as the Sixers (8-48) do that quite a bit. It’s how they’re losing: The Sixers rang up 115 points on 54 percent shooting from the field, and at times, looked very fluid. The offense, which ranks dead last in the NBA by a mile, wasn’t the problem during a season when it has been just that on so many occasions.

“Offensively, we’ve been playing pretty well,” Ish Smith said after scoring a game-high 22 points and dishing out five assists. “Outside of the Dallas game, we scored 114 and 115. Whatever the case is, we’ve got to find it defensively.”

After the game, Brown pointed to an area that has rarely been a criticism of his teams: effort. And when the Sixers don’t play with enough effort, they also don’t really stand a chance due to such a dearth of talent.

“I think the energy isn’t where we need it to be,” Brown said. “I think the individual defenders when we start games got to get going. We need to get going.”

Brown singled out the starting lineup: Ish Smith, Nik Stauskas, Robert Covington, Jahlil Okafor, and Nerlens Noel. Before the game, he made the “massive” declaration that Noel would stay at the rim defensively for the rest of the season while Okafor guards power forwards (which meant Aaron Gordon tonight). 

We have written ad nauseam about this subject. While Okafor and Noel combined for an efficient 33 points, they were both outdone by #FormerSixer Nikola Vucevic, who dropped a game-high 35. As a part of the overall effort problems, Brown believed that his two centers were generally a step slow against “Vooch.”

“I think both of those bigs have to do their work early,” Brown said. “Even with Nerlens’ lack of weight, it’s still not good enough. You have to establish what we call a ‘white’ [front] early like you would with Dwight Howard or whomever.”

“And when you get caught late, when you don’t do your work early, when you’re a step slow in your mind positionally, you get buried deep,” he added.

In Vucevic’s case, they got scored on time and again. Despite the obvious problems that the Sixers have with the alignment, Brown said the team is going to “bite their lip” and roll with the two bigs in the final third of the season. They will likely continue to struggle, but the hope is that the losses can be accompanied by some development.

“Obviously that’s not something that is easy to do at times,” Noel said. “But you just have to continue to learn from it and find little spots to build you game through.”

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann