Game Preview | Sights Set on Strong Finish, Sixers Prep for Long Break
Sizing Up the Sixers (21-34):
Some key injuries have been weathered, and early-season losses and rotational matters, too. All things being equal, the 76ers, with Brett Brown leading the way, are poised to arrive at the All-Star Game break in a relatively promising spot, with momentum on their side.
Three months ago, the Sixers were a young team with many new pieces, trying to figure out how to get by without two skilled ball-handlers, in Ben Simmons and Jerryd Bayless, while also adapting to the addition of a game-changing, yet inexperienced, big man in Joel Embiid.
At first, the path was a bit rocky. The Sixers dropped seven consecutive games to start the season. Then, after a brief mid-November spurt, they went on to lose eight more in a row, and carried a record of 7-24 into the finale of a long Western Conference holiday road trip.
December 30th was the date that everything started to change, and dramatically.
T.J. McConnell slid into the starting line-up due to Sergio Rodriguez being hurt. Embiid launched out on a tear during which his already potent output exploded to new heights. The Sixers won a tight tilt in Denver, and a few more close ones after that.
All of a sudden, Brown’s squad, one that had battled so much adversity through the first three years of his tenure, was on an eye-opening roll. During one stretch towards the end of January, the Sixers posted 10 victories in 13 tries, matching in that span of games their win total from all of last season.
When the calendar flipped to February, the Sixers boasted a record of 10-5 in the new year, tied with San Antonio for sixth-best in the NBA.
Since being forced at the outset of this month to adjust to Embiid’s current absence, which will reach a 10th straight contest Wednesday, the Sixers have steadied themselves. If the T.D. Garden scoreboard winds up in their favor later that night, they’ll head into the All-Star break behind what would be a season-best four-game winning streak.
Brown recognizes that his group has worked hard, especially for being shorthanded, and that the respite offered by a looming hiatus is essential. Nonetheless, the head coach, in the midst of his 16th season on an NBA bench, also realizes that in this business, momentum can be fickle.
As such, Brown and various members of his staff have poured plenty of thought into brainstorming how the Sixers should best handle the forthcoming All-Star break.
“There’s a balance of they need to refill their cup, they need to have some rest, and cleanse their mind and have fun,” Brown said Monday, before the Sixers went out and beat Charlotte, 105-99, at Spectrum Center. “And then, there’s a period where you just can’t come back after [rest] for seven, eight days without doing anything physically. So, we are very calculated with our strength and conditioning, with access to gyms, programs, talking about things with our guys.”
As Brown mentioned, this year’s All-Star break covers a considerable chunk of time. Following Wednesday’s outing in Boston, the Sixers won’t play again for nine days, when they host Washington at The Center on February 24th. In recent years, the NBA has prioritized finding ways to give players more chances in-season to recharge their batteries and recover. Extending the All-Star break has been one of the dominoes to fall.
“We’ve been on this,” Brown said of the scheduling gap that awaits the Sixers. “It’s a little bit like what I tell my guys [in the off-season] - I’m going to know in about three trips up the floor what you did all summer when I see you in September. I feel the same thing [going into the break].”
Going back to the Sixers’ turning point game in Denver six weeks ago, the team has since racked up 14 wins, the fourth-highest total in the league during that same period (Washington, Golden State has 18 wins; Boston 17; and Atlanta, Houston, and San Antonio 16). For a coach who breaks up each season into three separate parts, Brown was encouraged by the progress he saw unfold over the course of the Sixers’ “middle-third,” which, as Brown classifies it, lasts from Christmas to the All-Star break.
Now, the Sixers’ challenge is to clear the hurdle presented by the impending layoff, and close the season in strong fashion.
“I really like segmenting the season, as you know, and re-establishing goals and objectives of what I want to get done,” Brown said Monday, “and the lead up to the draft, and finishing out this year, and there’s nothing like being in the moment to best define those [goals]. I feel it, you’re in this thing so emotionally, you can feel what you want to get done or experiment with during that last third, and so all those things I will get done during the break.”
What’s left to figure out for the Sixers, which, following the break, will have 26 of their 82 games left to play?
For many people, not just fans, but those inside the Sixers’ basketball operations department as well, getting Embiid and Simmons on the court - together - would be an ideal development. The organization is well aware, however, that the two prospects will first need to be symptom-free prior to jumping into game action (Embiid is dealing with left knee injuries, Simmons a right foot fracture). Both are following a patient, cautious rehab approach.
Beyond evaluating the possibilities of an Embiid-Simmons pairing, there are still other important subplots left for the Sixers to investigate.
Can Dario Saric maintain, or maybe even build upon, his current hot streak? To what extent can Nik Stauskas sustain the valuable do-all form - scoring, rebounding, and facilitating - he’s displayed as of late? Is first-round selection, athletic wingman Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, capable of turning promising, intriguing flashes into more consistent contributions?
These are all areas Brown and the Sixers could very well aim to explore at greater length before the current campaign comes to a close.
One factor that will remain unchanged during the final third of the Sixers’ slate is Brown’s commitment to the foundational points of emphasis he considers to be defining to his team’s identity.
“We want to play fast, we want to shoot threes, and we want to build our program through defense,” said Brown. “And if I started that all over again and ordered it out, I’d say we want to guard, and we want to play fast. In between that, you better find people that can make threes, and I think that’s our future, that’s what we want to do. We want to coach it, develop it...and never let it go. We don’t want to have any mystery of who are we.”
In this vein, the Sixers, as Brown suggested, have dedicated themselves to creating a system that can “absorb talent,” as Brown has put it in the past. They want to be able to draft, sign, and trade for players that can fit a specific style of play.
“If you said how do you craft the perfect world for me, that’s how I want to play,” Brown said, referring to molding a club that excels at defense, pace, and perimeter efficiency. “How do you do that better in the final third is ultimately going to be my purpose.”
Brown is confident his players have the work ethic, focus, and drive to return from the All-Star break prepared and ready to help him meet this goal.
“Probably the greatest motivator is they’re prideful,” Brown said of the Sixers. “They don’t want to come back and play in front of the nation, and the city of Philadelphia that’s not very forgiving when it comes to not having the effort or at times performance that they expect from our players, and so there’s a little bit of appropriate fear that isn’t a bad thing to motivate - they don’t want to embarrass themselves.
“We want to take this final third, and move the program forward, move themselves forward, and try to set the stage for a great summer. I’m excited for that final third, and so is my staff. This All-Star break will be dealt with on those terms.”
Sizing Up the Celtics (36-19):
Boston is on the move, and in a major way. Having won three straight games, and 10 of their last 11, the Celtics have not only been playing some of their best basketball of the season lately, but doing so while key competition is struggling.
Thanks to their recent surge, the C’s have shot up to the second-place spot in the Eastern Conference, where they sit just 2.5 games behind the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers, which have been up-and-down in 2017. Along the way, Boston leapfrogged over slumping Toronto in both the East standings, and for the Atlantic Division lead.
The Celtics will be well-represented at this weekend’s All-Star Game in New Orleans. Isaiah Thomas is heading to the annual exhibition for a second straight year. The pint-sized but prolific point guard began Wednesday ranked second in the NBA in points per game (29.8), and has proven to be one of the league’s most dangerous fourth-quarter scorers.
Brad Stevens, in his fourth season as Boston’s head coach, was selected, along with his staff, to run this year’s Eastern Conference All-Star contingent.
One of the most tradition-rich rivalries in NBA history has so far authored an entertaining new chapter this season. The first two match-ups of the year between the Sixers and Celtics have come down to a total of five points, with Boston winning both meetings, 107-106, and 110-106.
The C’s have taken 10 in a row from the Sixers, marking their second-longest winning streak in the divisional series, which dates back to 1949.
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• Video Stream - CSNPhilly.com