March 27, 2019
Under Brett Brown's leadership, the Sixers are never going to be a fire and brimstone team. They savor the wins and respect what they learn from losses, but they don't tend to overreact to defeat. That's even easier when you have the talent to convince yourselves that you can turn it on when it matters and overcome the impact of newness on your team.
But the team knows when they are (and are not) delivering acceptable performances, win or lose. After Wednesday's practice availability, it was clear the Sixers knew they served up a pair of clunkers against the Hawks and Magic on the road.
"We had a couple of bad losses, and both those teams probably just played harder than us," JJ Redick told reporters on Wednesday. "That's something that we can control and we have to be better there."
I know, I know — stop the presses. You're telling me the Sixers may not have played as hard as the Orlando Magic on Monday, with their opponent fighting for their playoff lives at the bottom of the playoff standings? Not a shocking development.
But this has been the M.O. for this team all year, with and without Jimmy Butler, with and without Tobias Harris. Their competitive fire is all the way there for games against the Bucks and Celtics, but they can't dig deep and find that killer instinct and blow teams away that they should.
It's an odd thing that creates several schools of thought. Maybe the Sixers are too nonchalant and are going to be punished by more disciplined teams in the playoffs. Maybe the Sixers are even better than they look night to night, and their talent will prove that in a seven-game series. Whatever the case is, they all believe they need to use this final stretch to
"The canyon in between the examples in the Atlanta game or the Orlando game vs. the Celtics game or the Milwaukee game are too steep. They're too far apart," Brown said. "I get there are lulls in seasons, I get there are games in an 82-game schedule where you just don't perform well...we need to address and own some things, led by me, I'm the coach."
That starts and ends with defense, frankly. The Sixers have been quite alright on the offensive side of the ball this year, their lull against Orlando notwithstanding, and their new starting five has cooked opponents from minute one. That remains the case — in 150 minutes together the lineup of Simmons/Redick/Butler/Harris/Embiid has scored 120.3 points per 100 possessions, according to the NBA's stats database.
Squint closely, and you might believe the defense will come around when everyone is locked in and rotations shorten. That same group allows 104.5 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would put them right behind the Bucks for the best defense in the league this season. They will all play more minutes together in the playoffs than they do now.
Still, even those defensive numbers are hovering in "above-average" territory compared against five-man lineups leaguewide, 64th percentile according to Cleaning The Glass. With Philadelphia's bench as thin and as limited as it is, the Sixers need their top guys to be elite on both ends. They haven't gotten there yet.
March is a famously terrible month for assessing an NBA team. As playoff spots are locked up and seeding begins to crystallize, the motivation to go out and step on the neck of a bottom feeder dwindles.
But this team has a different task ahead of them than some of the teams they're being compared against. Brown pointed to the institutional history of some of their rivals — including the Celtics, who have had years to build continuity with many of their role players — and said his group can't afford to carry themselves as if they are already among the great teams in the league.
"We're not Golden State, where they have a history where they won championships, they've been with each other, you don't sort of pick and choose as much as they might be able to," Brown said. "We're not there. We're on 3.0 76ers, we don't have the luxury to pick and choose...[we're] trying to make sure here we are, and respecting our opportunity to claim the third spot, that's important."
The gym appeared to have more zip on Wednesday, and with several young players joining them following the conclusion of the G-League season for the Blue Coats, at the very least there is some new blood in the building with something to prove. And despite some recent letdown games, the Sixers all appear to be in good spirits.
Jimmy Chandler (?) at practice today pic.twitter.com/cIM9W0bfMW— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) March 27, 2019
But, as the head coach likes to say, they need to have an "appropriate fear" heading into this final eight-game stretch.
If they're not going to apply that to the lower-rung teams left on the schedule, perhaps they should start showing some proper fear for the task they have ahead of them. To achieve their goals this season, they will likely have to go through teams in the playoffs that have outperformed them all season, some who have beaten them handily in their season series.
They have eight games left to build continuity and a cohesive identity before things get real. They'd be smart to make the most of that time.
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