Sixers in London | Trip Brings Balance, Areas for Improvement Into Focus
LONDON – There certainly is a special element to being one of the few teams selected to play a regular season game in a foreign country, that much the 76ers fully recognize, from Brett Brown down to his players. The assignment is a privileged one, full of opportunities for professional and personal enrichment, all while headlining a marquee NBA event.
Underscoring this week’s trek to the United Kingdom for the league’s London Game 2018, however, is the recognition that Thursday’s match-up with the Boston Celtics is a contest of consequence. The stakes are real, and very much carry implications in respect to both clubs’ ambitions for this year.
The seriousness of the trip is different, let’s say, than a pre-season jaunt abroad, as JJ Redick was quick to point out Monday, hours before he and the Sixers boarded an overnight transatlantic flight to the English capital.
“This is a regular season game,” said Redick, using some drive home the distinction. “We’re not going over there to try and put on a show, and the Celtics aren’t trying to put on a show and entertain a British crowd. We’re going over there to try to be a great team.”
The business-like tone struck by Redick Monday at the Sixers’ training complex was an extension of the marching orders he and his teammates have been receiving from their head coach.
Yes, the results posted recently by Brett Brown’s Sixers have been encouraging, with wins earned in five of their last six games. This reversal of fortunes has come on the heels of a tough mid-December stretch during which challenging twists in the schedule were as commonplace as injuries.
But to ensure the Sixers keep trending in the right direction, Brown wants more, and soon.
Specifically, he’d like to see his group improve its post spacing in relation to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the two dynamic young talents through whom the Sixers frequently play.
Brown has also challenged the Sixers to do an even better job defensively.
As of Tuesday morning, the team ranked seventh in the league with a defensive rating of 103.3 points allowed per 100 possessions. Good, Brown thinks, but there’s room for refinement.
"We want to move into top five,” he said Sunday. “In order to do that, it’s going to require the people who aren’t Joel Embiid.”
Put differently, Brown believes the Sixers are capable of delivering stronger defensive play during the stretches of games they’re without the paint-clogging, rim-protecting, switchable 7-footer. The talent and manpower, Brown thinks, are there.
“It requires the bench and others becoming better defensively.”
Still very much on Brown’s mind these days are a few other recurring themes that have been ever-present throughout the year: guarding without fouling, and keeping turnovers down.
In respect to the latter of these two aims, there have been signs of promise lately. The Sixers surrendered just 12 turnovers in their previous game, last Friday’s dominant win over the Detroit Pistons. The total was their lowest since yielding a dozen giveaways November 27th at Cleveland.
The Sixers have now committed 15 turnovers or less in five of their last six tilts.
"Here’s the bottom line,” Brown said. “We’re 5-1 in our last six games, and we’ve averaged [14.5] turnovers.”
He then proceeded to note that in the six games preceding this modest turnaround, the Sixers had gone 1-5, while averaging 21.3 turnovers.
“There’s a complete connection to winning when you give out that stat,” said Brown.
Thanks to an easing of the schedule in the immediate run-up to their visit to London, the Sixers have been afforded more practice time, and subsequently have had increased chances to tinker.
“We’re getting healthier, and we’re starting to find ourselves again,” Embiid, a self-described London lover, said Monday. “It’s good to see, but I think we still got a lot to work on defensively. I think we’ve been taking care of the ball better. We just got to keep playing together.”
Such will be the Sixers’ objective this week, with a pairing against the Eastern Conference’s top team, and an adventure overseas serving as major parts of the backdrop.
"We’re going to walk that line of making it a family thing, a very collective, enjoyable trip, with still the mindset that we’re going to beat the Boston Celtics,” said Brown.
He, along with the Sixers’ front office and management, made sure there was enough room on the team charter for players and basketball operations staffers to invite a companion along, if he or she felt so inclined.
“Everybody’s got an extra seat, they can bring whoever they want – moms, brothers, wives, friends,” Brown said.
In the end, as Brown and his players have indicated, there’s a fine line to walk, especially given that Thursday’s bout will affect the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference standings.
“To be able to have an experience like this in the middle of an NBA season is special,” said Redick, the sage sharpshooter, “and I certainly don’t take it for granted.”
This year’s London Game, which will be held at O2 Arena, will mark the first time the Sixers compete in a regular season game outside of North American soil.