Game Preview: Amidst Promising Stretch, Sixers' Focus is Forward

by Brian Seltzer Reporter

Sizing Up the Sixers (11-25):
The results and numbers over the past two weeks bear it out - the 76ers are on a nice roll.

They head into Friday’s home match-up versus Charlotte having one four of five games, their most successful five-game stretch since a 4-1 spurt in January of 2014. The team’s latest victory, of course, came in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion against the Knicks Wednesday, when T.J. McConnell’s baseline fadeaway fell true as time expired.

Brett Brown has been enjoying the Sixers’ modest run, and not just because the wins have been more frequent. In his fourth season at the helm, the head coach is most encouraged to see rewards being reaped from points of emphasis he and his assistants have been making since his tenure started. 

“It is fun,” Brow said Thursday, “but it’s fun because you’re seeing [improvement], it’s fun because you’re seeing the result of staying together pay dividends. You’re seeing the result of a support staff and people around me stay together, and take really simple themes offensively, defensively, how you watch video, what do you do in a weight room, and never let it go, and try to walk it down, and see that resonate slowly. That’s the slow evolution that we’ve all experienced of trying to build a culture, to build a set of behaviors, standards, and grow a program.”

The 4-1 record the Sixers have compiled since December 30th currently ranks sixth-best in the NBA during this period. Only Atlanta (6-0), Houston (7-1), Golden State (6-1), Indiana (5-1), and Boston (5-1) have done better. All five of these teams qualified for the playoffs last season.

How have the Sixers been stacking up lately against the rest of the league from a statistical standpoint? Hopefully the following isn’t information overload, but take a quick look at some of the noteworthy ranks the Sixers hold dating back to that operative date of December 30th:

Summing up the above data, the Sixers’ turnaround has coincided with an overall tightening of the defense. Specifically, their defense in transition has made strides.

The Sixers’ change in fortunes, however small the sample size may be, has caused some good vibes to spread not only within the team, but throughout the city, region, and fanbase supporting it.

“Damn right,” Nerlens Noel said Thursday, when asked if he can sense the excitement surrounding the Sixers growing. “I see just the way the crowd erupted [Wednesday] night. Those are always the special feelings that you’ll remember for a long time. Hopefully, the success continues and grows into something bigger.”

Brown does, too. For that reason, he is putting the onus on himself to ensure the Sixers stay humble, even-keeled, and maintain a broad perspective. 

“It is extremely early days, and although the excitement is real, I think it’s tempered clearly with there’s just so, so, so much more to do,” said Brown. “I feel like we all have a tendency to get ahead of ourselves. As good as it is, we recognize that we have four playoff teams coming up. We’d all be wiser to talk after that. We’ll all be able to judge and measure a little bit better after that.”

The segment of the schedule to which Brown was alluding features the Hornets Friday, Wizards Saturday, Bucks Monday, and Raptors next Wednesday. As of Friday morning, these clubs were ranked seventh, eighth, fifth, and second in the Eastern Conference, respectively. Brown expects the Sixers to be given a good measuring stick.

“I think it’s fantastic,” he said Thursday. “I, and the players, we welcome this. We feel like we’re playing good basketball. You’re going to more clearly see things that you need to get better at when you start playing against the elite teams in the East. It’s a compass, it’s a reminder of what we’re going to need to do to get to where we want to go.”

“He says we can play better,” said McConnell, Wednesday’s hero, of Brown’s message to the team. Particularly, the Sixers are hoping to continue shoring up their ball movement and defense. 

Thursday morning, the themes of the Sixers’ film session revolved around the ideas of “how do you get better, how do you get greedy, how do you move on?”

“There’s nobody, led by me, that’s getting ahead of ourselves,” said Brown. “We are completely grounded. 

“We get it, we’re pleased with the recent results, but I think getting greedy, and how do you get better, is the messaging that we’re holding on to.”

As competition on the horizon stiffens, Noel is confident that progress achieved over the past 14 days, along with a budding internal chemistry, could position the Sixers to keep moving forward in the days ahead.

“It’s probably the closest team I’ve been on since I’ve been a Sixer,” said Noel, now four years removed from turning pro. “I think that definitely speaks for itself. Guys, they just care about each other. We’ve got a great group of young guys that go out here and play the game for one another. That’s just a certain aspect that you need in a strong team that wants to go out there and win games, and really just are for each others’ success as much as they do their own.”

Sizing Up the Hornets (20-19):
Charlotte will be looking to avoid a season-high tying fourth consecutive loss Friday, as its current five-game road trip has began with three straight defeats. Despite their recent downturn, the Hornets, which have qualified for the playoffs two out of the last three seasons, are currently eighth in the Eastern Conference. 

Point guard Kemba Walker typically proves to be a difficult defensive assignment. The sixth-year UConn product is averaging a career-best 23.1 points per game, and is ninth in the league with 106 3-point field goals.

Series History:
Charlotte has posted six straight wins over the Sixers, including a 109-93 victory at Spectrum Center on November 2nd. Joel Embiid did not play in that game, marked by Ersan Ilyasova’s Sixer debut. He came off the bench to tally 14 points and three rebounds. Kemba Walker paced the Hornets with 22 points.

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