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March 03, 2019

Sixers have plenty of positive to take from close loss to Golden State

Sixers NBA

It is usually the responsibility of Philadelphia's core four to give us a window into the team's mentality after a Sixers game, win or lose. Whether it's Joel Embiid cracking a joke about another center he dominated or Ben Simmons brushing off questions following a loss, it is not hard to read the mood of the room.

After Saturday night's loss to the Golden State Warriors, Mike Scott said all that needed to be said. After shooting the lights out for most of the second half, Scott took a bad foul with 35 seconds left that put Kevin Durant on the line in a three-point game. The veteran forward did not mince words.

"I have no excuse. I'm not one for excuses. I don't know, I just got to be better. Easier said than done, we lost, it doesn't mean shit," Scott said. "It's on me."

Saturday night's loss was a particularly frustrating defeat for the home team. Without Joel Embiid, the Sixers looked comfortably better than Golden State for the first 24 minutes of the game. A win would have put them in sole control of the No. 3 seed in the East. But familiar problems doomed them in the end, with the individual heroics of Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry putting the Warriors over the top in the end.

The Sixers, as it turns out, play in a lot of games like this. They found themselves on the winning end in similar games against New Orleans and Oklahoma City earlier in the week. That constant slog of tight games inspires more debate than the average NBA team, because even when they win, they can make it feel torturous.

But that feeling does not appear to carry over to the locker room. The Sixers had chances to change their fortune and did not capitalize, but they believe deep down that there are lessons to be taken from the loss to Golden State.

The miscues in the clutch are aggravating to even a neutral observer. But the Sixers show time and time again that they are capable of putting themselves in position to play and compete with any team in the league. And they did that once again on Saturday.

One of the common points of criticism is that the Sixers are somehow tactically unprepared when things get tight and tough. Is that true at times? 100 percent. But even with all sorts of reasons to be a mess — a new and developing roster, a star who can't shoot, the absence of their franchise player — the Sixers are right there with chances to win.

If JJ Redick makes a three he can hit in his sleep, the game changes and perhaps we talk about executing at a level high enough to free one of the greatest shooters of all-time for a wide-open shot with less than two minutes to play.

Scott baits Damion Lee toward the perimeter after Redick screens for him, he drifts toward the paint to draw his attention, and then Redick flashes to the arc as Simmons sets another screen on a wary Lee. The Warriors — with Draymond Green on an island with Jimmy Butler and the rest stuck in traffic — have no real shot at contesting.

If the Sixers make one or two more shots, we're talking about the ATO play they ran for Tobias Harris right before Scott took a silly foul, or even the previous ATO play that got Harris a good perimeter look that he missed.

There absolutely are points of criticism to consider and fingers to point from the outside. Should Ben Simmons be the guy bringing the ball up on the team's pivotal possession, down three and with the chance of getting fouled? Probably not. Should Brett Brown have commanded Simmons to intentionally miss his second free throw with 10 seconds to go? I didn't think so, but that's a judgment call at best, and Brown offered a reasonable explanation after the game.

"When I don't have timeouts and we have to do something coming back, I'll [intentionally miss] all day every day. You miss it and try to go get some level of a putback. I don't feel comfortable with Golden State [in a free-throw game], and especially the fact that I don't have any timeouts," Brown said. "I think it's questionable for me if you do have timeouts. When you don't, that's what you're doing."

If you were to judge the Sixers solely on the perception of how they perform in crunch time, you would think they were doomed to fail. The numbers say otherwise — they have one of the best win profiles in clutch situations in the league. 

Yes, there are problems that persist that make you wonder if they will ever go away without a coaching change. The Sixers have been a pass-heavy, turnover-prone team for much of Brown's tenure. They favor free-flowing offense rather than structured, set-heavy execution. That puts the onus on the players, and with the Sixers still learning each other's names — and built around two young stars with high-risk styles to boot — that's a serious risk.

Yet it's a challenge their coach seems to want them to embrace. Before Saturday's game, Brown discussed this dynamic at length, explaining that part of the team's preparation is rooted in his study of the most pivotal periods of all — film from the fourth quarters of Game 7's. 

"It's not the plays, it's the players. Always was, always will be," Brown said on Saturday evening. "It's not anything else but space and concepts. It's not [me calling] Ear Tug 53, it's got nothing to do with do you create that environment with the players that we now coach?" 

There are not a lot of historical comps for this Sixers team; they were birthed from a radical rebuilding process, augmented by a major in-season trade, and then boosted once again at the deadline, creating what they've referred to as the third team in a 60-ish game window. They are built around a post-up center and a 6-foot-10 guard who can't shoot in a league that is making both those archetypes more difficult to build around. They have a coach who has been around long enough to inspire strong opinions on both ends of the spectrum, but with less usable data to evaluate him than we'd have for almost any other coach in charge of a team that long.

This period is about learning above all else. The Sixers' greatest privilege is also their curse: their young players are so good so quickly that they are expected to win sooner and more often than most young players in history. Michael Jordan needed four seasons to win his first playoff series. LeBron James needed three. The Sixers stripped this franchise down to nothing but the nails and still came up with 52 wins and a second-round appearance in the first and second seasons of Simmons and Embiid.

While most other contenders are rounding into their finals forms, the Sixers are in the process of absorbing major pieces. That they are still competing and succeeding as they are, that they can generate clean looks in crunch time using players who have been here for mere weeks, says a lot.

No one should be happy with moral victories anymore. The Process days are behind everyone at this point. But confusing inconsistency with incompetence would be a mistake, as would erasing the good to yell about the bad.

We will see what this team is made of soon enough. Having to absorb body blows from the Warriors and test everyone's nerves in crunch time is not the worst thing they can experience in the meantime.

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