In Review | Spirit, Identity Reclaimed, but King Has Final Word
CLEVELAND, OH - Over the years, Brett Brown has come to expect a certain standard of play from the 76ers, one that he essentially established from the earliest days of his head coaching tenure in Philadelphia.
The requirements are pretty straightforward, and laid out clearly. Play hard, play tough, play with an edge. As long as those boxes are ticked, Brown can usually live with the result, regardless.
In the Sixers’ first two outings of the week, home losses to the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers, Brown didn’t quite recognize the team he was running. Its “sting,” as he termed it, so often a staple trait, wasn’t where he wanted it to be.
Up against challenging odds Saturday with an undermanned roster, and on the road visiting a world-class opponent that saw its franchise record-tying winning streak snapped the night before, the Sixers succeeded in getting their bite back. They just weren’t able to get across the finish line, falling to the Cleveland Cavaliers, 105-98, at Quicken Loans Arena.
On an night they were without top scorer and rebounder Joel Embiid (load management), and bench spark plug T.J. McConnell (sprained AC joint, left shoulder), the Sixers still managed to take the Cavs down to the wire. They even led at several junctures of the fourth quarter, before one of the sport’s all-time greats took over.
After the Sixers went in front 96-91 on a driving two-handed slam dunk from Ben Simmons, LeBron James, one of Simmons’ most notable mentors, went on to have a say in each point Cleveland scored during its ensuing 14-2 game-ending run.
The aftermath of defeat brought disappointment, for certain, but Brown seemed to appreciate the extent to which his club competed, given the circumstances.
“I was proud of our guys,” Brown said. “There was no back down.”
There was James, however. In the end, the four-time MVP and three-time champ wound up with his third triple-double of the season, manufacturing 30 points, 13 rebounds, and 13 assists.
“I thought we did a pretty good job doubling him, and he found some stuff,” said Brown. “He was 9 for 23 [on field goals], he had 6 turnovers, and he still is that good where he put his thumbprint all over the game, especially late.”
As for the factors that allowed to the Sixers to recapture their hard-fighting form, there were several. Ben Simmons, who posted 14 points, 10 assists, and 6 rebounds for his 14th double-double, set the tone for Saturday’s tilt, driving and distributing at his discretion throughout the first quarter, which saw him start 3 for 3 from the floor.
Behind his efforts, the Sixers quickly sent the message they had come to play. They raced out to an 18-7 lead, and were on top, 23-24, going into the second quarter.
Simmons’ intent was to be in attack mode, and he was.
“I think we played well overall,” Simmons said. “We had a few miscommunications...but I think overall we played well.”
Dario Saric, as scrappy and determined a player as there is on the Sixers’ roster, was back in the fold following a one-game absence (left eye laceration/corneal abrasion of the right eye). To no surprise, he was critical to fueling the Sixers’ spirit.
Like Simmons, Saric was active from the jump, and turned in a diversified box line. The Croatian accounted for 17 points (8-17 fg), 9 boards, and season-best 6 dimes. Beyond that, he was rugged, and physical. Earlier in the day, Brown wasn’t even sure the 23-year old would be ready to play.
“You need all that here,” said Brown, referring to Saric’s presence. “That’s what we’re trying to be - an aggressive, physical, defensive-minded team. For most of the season we have been. I thought tonight, we reclaimed some of that personality we’re seeking.”
“We were so close,” Saric said. “They have the best player in the world, and they didn’t forget that.”
Another ingredient that added to the Sixers’ grit Saturday was the new guy, Trevor Booker. Acquired Thursday from the Brooklyn Nets in a trade, the 30-year old veteran forward filled a needed, steady role. In less than 20 minutes, he tallied 12 points (4-6 fg), making most of his two-way contributions around the basket. All of his field goals came from within a foot of the rim, and he snagged 8 rebounds, too (half of which were pulled from the offensive glass).
Booker felt his Sixers’ debut was “okay.”
“Of course, I would’ve loved to win,” he said, “but we played hard, we fought, and competed.”
“He’s a beast,” said Simmons. “I love playing with him so far. He’s a hard-working guy, runs the floor, knows how to play the game, and spaces the floor. He’s a good player.”
As much as the Sixers’ benefited from the attitude they brought to the court, there were also tangible elements working in their favor, and an adaptability in the face of limited personnel.
Trailing 52-46 at the half, and facing a 10-point deficit, 60-50, in the middle of the third quarter, the Sixers, down their interior powerhouse Embiid, got going on the perimeter.
Namely, Robert Covington and JJ Redick caught the wave, and the Sixers rode their hot shooting back into contention. Covington used one of his 5 threes to level the score at 78-78 at the outset of the fourth, and not too long after that, Redick snapped off 9 points in a row to stake his squad to an 86-81 advantage.
“Whether it’s those two [Redick, Covington], you need to make shots, you need to make threes, just like they did,” said Brown. “It’s a part of our sport.”
Covington and Redick each netted 19 points, and combined for 9 of the Sixers’ 11 triples. Redick scored 17 of his points in Saturday’s second half.
“We’re trying to get wins in the win column, and be in position to get a playoff spot,” Redick said. “We’re disappointed.”
Ultimately standing in their way Saturday was James. For most of the game, Simmons was the King’s primary defender (although the Sixers did do some switching). The rookie held his own, Brown felt, keeping proper distance, and staying in his stance.
In crunch time, James proved too much. With the Sixers up by 5 points with 4 minutes, 40 seconds left, he first converted an and-1, and then assisted on the Cavaliers’ next four buckets. Ball game.
“We almost did what it took to win,” said Brown. “That’s the margin of error when you’re dealing with one of few best teams in the NBA, and arguably the best player in the NBA.”
The question below was certainly one worth asking, not only because of how Ben Simmons executed the play, but that he managed to do so in such a clutch spot, at 96-91.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) December 10, 2017
The Sixers will travel from one boundary of the country to another, flying overnight to New Orleans, where they play the Pelicans Sunday at 7:00 PM EST in the finale of a demanding back-to-back set. As of Saturday, New Orleans, with a record of 13-13, occupied the eight spot in the Western Conference standings. All-Star forward Anthony Davis returned to action in Friday’s 116-109 home loss to the Sacramento Kings, after missing three consecutive contests due to a groin injury. Fellow big man DeMarcus Cousins has been a force this season, ranking fifth and third in the NBA, respectively, in scoring (26.3 ppg) and rebounding (12.6 rpg). He’s topped the 30-point mark in three of his last four appearances.