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Philadelphia 76ers, Chicago Bulls finding their way after reversal of usual roles

Playoffs within reach for Sixers; Bulls brace for rebuilding efforts

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

A Hollywood movie played out at United Center Thursday night, one of those cheesy comedies in which two characters accidentally bump into each, suffer a “freak accident” and switch personalities.

For a night, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Chicago Bulls starred in roles previously played by Steve Martin-Lily Tomlin, Jason Bateman-Ryan Reynolds, Lindsay Lohan-Jamie Lee Curtis and many others.

The Sixers, a team so dedicated to losing in recent seasons that they gave it a wink-wink name (“The Process”), were the ones facing expectations and some pressure. With teams clustered tightly in the Eastern Conference standings — the third-place Cavaliers (34-23) and eighth-place Heat (30-28) were separated by just 4 1/2 games by night’s end, with the Washington Wizards, Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks and 76ers in between – they knew a post-All Star sprint through what’s left of the schedule could make all the difference in first-round matchups.

Just that word, “postseason,” is bright, shiny and maybe a little scary for Philadelphia. This is a team that lost 199 times from 2013-14 through 2015-16, forever tainting coach Brett Brown’s W-L record while racing to the league’s bottom to draft Joel Embiid (third pick overall, 2014), Jahlil Okafor (third, 2015) and Ben Simmons (first, 2016).

Injuries, particularly those suffered by Embiid (31 games in 2016-17) and Simmons (missed ’16-17 season), meant bonus “Process” last season, as did the Sixers sorting out the future whereabouts of Okafor and Nerlens Noel (third overall, 2013). But now the stakes are real, the goals are tangible, the regular season’s final two months mean a ton.

“There is a mentality, this final third of this season in relation to, how do you prepare to play in the playoffs?” Brown said of his evolving chore. “That level of detail, that level of focus, that level of commitment gets raised — the bar is raised. Trying to make people hyper-aware of what could be around the corner.”

Asked how his organization managed to maintain its firewall between the “Process” and the locker room, Sixers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo said Thursday: “I don’t think the players ever stopped seeing the light at the end.”

For a team like Chicago — which averaged more victories (51) in a recent five-season span than Philly totaled in three (47) — that light currently is an oncoming train. Around the next corner is yet another corner, at least for the foreseeable future. Seven teams reached the All-Star break with fewer than 20 victories, and the Bulls were not among them. In this final season before Draft lottery odds get further flattened, stiffer orders from the team’s front office came down this week: Changes would be made.

Losing stinks, and the pain of losing is real. But the things that went into growing young players was really enjoyable for me.”

Sixers coach Brett Brown

Specifically, that meant benching two veteran players — center Robin Lopez and wing Justin Holiday — whose talents helped key Chicago’s 10-6 record in December. Now Bulls fans will get a heavy diet of Cristiano Felicio, Cameron Payne and David Nwaba in the rotation, under the guise of poking and prodding what talent they do or don’t possess.

Such are the inexactitudes of, er, winning-by-losing (that “T” word is too expensive to use) that Nwaba nearly torpedoed the reaffirmed plan as it began. The poor man’s Dwyane Wade — that’s my comp and I’m sticking it — scored a career-high 21 points with nine rebounds as Chicago nearly messed up both teams’ nights before a timely collapse in a 116-115 loss. The sturdy 6-foot-4 journeyman has a chance to become the Bulls’ version of Robert Covington or T.J. McConnell, a fringe guy signed as a placeholder who earns a legit spot.

The Bulls have enough talent in the yield of the Jimmy Butler trade — rookie stretch-four Lauri Markkanen, wing Zach LaVine and point guard Kris Dunn — along with forward/center Bobby Portis (38 points) and Nwaba to make losing difficult over the 24 games remaining. Sitting out good soldiers such as Lopez and Holiday wasn’t a pillar of Philly’s (cough) systematic rebuild.

Fortunately for those asked to take three steps back before taking one forward, human memory is kind. Nightly anguish recedes. Yesterday yields to today and tomorrow.

“When I look in the rear-view mirror, it’s not as painful as people make it out to be,” Brown said. “Losing stinks, and the pain of losing is real. But the things that went into growing young players was really enjoyable for me.

“The development of young guys, giving them opportunities, explaining life in the NBA and what it takes to stay in the NBA, building a culture, stuff that nobody sees when it’s 48 minutes in front of 20,000 people, the underbelly of what it means to grow a culture and raise the bar, interest me a lot,” he continued. “It wasn’t like I was 36 years old. I’d coached a long time. I’d been privileged to see championships and all that, [so] for me personally that challenge interested me a lot and kept me going.”

Brown is more likely now to be crushed by a blown lead or a narrow defeat, because it represents lost opportunity. He has talked extensively with Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg to help him cope along the long, dreary path Chicago’s management has staked out. Relationships and player development, Brown said, are the two realms in which Hoiberg should bury himself.

But as far as shrugging away losses and the kindness of Brown’s “rear-view mirror,” Colangelo could only smile.

Said the Sixers exec: “He said that with a straight face, huh?”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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