In Review | A Fitting Time to be Thankful for Initial Progress

by Brian Seltzer
Sixers.com Reporter

Snapshot:

PHILADELPHIA, PA - Not long ago, 10 wins was a figure more associated with the end of a 76ers’ journey than the beginning of one.

And while there wasn’t too much being made of this milepost following Wednesday’s 101-81 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, the modest numerical achievement was hard to overlook entirely. After all, the Sixers did manage to reach double-digits before Thanksgiving.

If anything, it sounded like for a team with loftier goals in mind, the focus was on holistic progress, not a specific number. 

“I think everybody can share in this,” said Brett Brown, after another home sellout, the Sixers’ seventh in as many regular season appearances. “We all have done the same thing together - the city has lived the same life that the coaching staff has for the period of time since I’ve been here.”

Brown assumed the reigns of the Sixers in August of 2013, and has since gone on to guide the club with the steadiest of resilient, impassioned hands. 

"Nobody’s ahead of ourselves,” he said of his squad, now 10-7. ”At this stage, we are happy with that, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Wednesday’s wire-to-wire performance against Portland provided a quality case in point, probably one of the reasons why Brown’s words flowed so honestly moments after the Sixers registered their second consecutive 20-point win, a first since January of 2012.

The offense, for instance, was one area Brown thought could have been sharper Wednesday. The unit, which converted 43.3 percent of its shots, went 11 for 32 from 3-point territory (34.4 3fg%), and committed 18 turnovers, rushing its attempts, at times, per Brown.

[The Trail Blazers, for the record, are no defensive slouches. They entered the game with the second-lowest defensive rating in the league. Brown admitted he can be “greedy” sometimes).

Yet even on a night the Sixers might not have enjoyed their most efficient collective offensive showing, two of the team’s emerging stars demonstrated once again just how much of a difference they can make. Joel Embiid churned out 28 points (11-19 fg, 1-3 3fg, 5-5 ft), while Ben Simmons netted 18 points (8-20 fg). They were vital to the Sixers’ cause.

“I thought defensively, the whole game, we were great,” said Embiid, who hauled in 12 rebounds for his eighth double-double of the season.

“I think we played as a team,” said Simmons. “It came down to being consistent.”

Especially on the defensive end, which is where Brown’s attention always tends to gravitate first and foremost. For the second time in as many outings, the Sixers set a new season-low in points allowed, and opponent field goal percentage (Rip City hit only 33.7 percent of its attempts).

“I would take...good defense any day of the week,” Brown said.

Specific to Wednesday’s defensive effort, the Sixers were dialed in on primary points of emphasis of their scouting report. They clamped down on Rip City’s potent backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, which took the floor Wednesday averaging better than 46 points per game, with 90 3-pointers between them.

While Lillard, a two-time All-Star, was pesky, en route to tallying  a game-high 30 points, he did need 27 shots to get there. McCollum, meanwhile, was neutralized. A 47.5 percent field goal shooter heading into Wednesday’s affair, the Lehigh product went 1 for 14 from the field, and was held to a season-low 5 points.

“I thought the guys did well,” said Brown, when asked how the Sixers executed their defensive game plan. “We guarded the other players effectively to help us produce some of the low-percentage numbers we’re speaking of.”

Recognizing how dangerous a tandem Lillard and McCollum form, Brown decided to defend them with a committee consisting of JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless, TJ McConnell, and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. It was Covington (9 pts, 10 reb), though, who did the lionshare of the work on McCollum. The longest-tenured Sixer finished with a telling plus-28 rating.

“I think it was that [Lillard and McCollum] saw a crowd,” Brown said. “It wasn’t just the people who were guarding them - it was a team effort.”

The Sixers also heeded Brown’s call to tend to the boards. They started Wednesday with the NBA’s top rebounding average, while Portland was right behind them at third overall. The Sixers prevailed on the glass, thanks to a 57-48 margin.

At the outset of the Sixers’ third game on a season-long six-game homestand, there were plenty of rebounding opportunities to be had. Portland misfired on its first 16 shots, allowing the Sixers to race out to a 16-0 advantage.

Interestingly enough, Embiid’s scoring didn’t start until the latter stages of the Sixers’ convincing opening frame. But as the big man has demonstrated through the first two seasons of his career, he can take over quick.

With his mother, Christine, watching courtside, seats away from the Sixers’ bench, Embiid rose to the occasion at crucial junctures of Wednesday’s contest, unleashing stabilizing scoring flurries in the second, third, and fourth quarters. The bursts ensured that the Sixers’ never lost control. 

“Jo played well, really well,” said Simmons.

Embiid logged 30 minutes, and helped the Sixers to a 42-26 edge in points in the paint. Simmons, uncorking powerful finishes and dunks throughout the game, tied a career-high with 39 minutes played. Apart and together, the pair was critical to Wednesday's outcome.

By the end of the evening, on the heels of a successful venture on Thanksgiving eve, there were plenty of thankful thoughts to go around, regardless of whether members of the team were natives of this country, or hailed from elsewhere.

“I’m thankful for my family,” said Embiid, “and, I’m thankful for the city of Philadelphia. This has become my home, and I hope to be here the rest of my career. I’m just thankful for the fans, and everybody around me, people that have been supportive.”

The Cameroonian was appreciative of something else, too.

“I’m mostly thankful for social media, and you guys, the media,” the center joked, “because you guys hype me up so much, so thank you.”

Simmons echoed Embiid’s initial sentiments, expressing gratitude for teammates, his head coach, and a “great fan base.”

The feelings from Brown were both mutual, and like-minded.

“In relation to what personally I feel most thankful for is we have been given time to try to grow this thing,” Brown said. “I love the players in that locker room, I’ve had a staff with me for five years. We’ve all gone through a lot. I feel like we’re building something that we have envisioned for a while - in its early days - but we see daylight, and we see fruits of our labor with the people that have gone through a lot. I’m proud of my team.”

That the Sixers already have 10 wins in the book probably has something to do with Brown’s statement. Of greater importance is that with plenty of basketball left to be played, there figures to be lots of future opportunities to add to the total. 

Sixers Social:

This explosive attack on the rim 90 seconds into Wednesday’s third quarter happened so fast, a slow-mo look only seemed appropriate.

Up Next:

Following a two-day hiatus for the Thanksgiving holiday, the Sixers will resume their season-long six-game homestand Saturday against the previously surging Orlando Magic. Orlando raced out to an impressive 6-2 start, its best dating back to the 2009-2010 campaign. Entering play Wednesday, however, the Magic had dropped four consecutive contests.