The Sixers’ losing stretch has hit seven losses in the last eight games, and there is no quick fix for their recent struggles. The team that began the season quickly exceeding expectations by defeating playoff contenders is now fighting to get back to .500 amid a flurry of missteps.
Pointing to Joel Embiid as an instant solution is not on the table. The big man missed Tuesday’s 101-95 loss to the Kings because of back tightness and his status for their next game Thursday is up in the air.
Tuesday’s defeat — a game the Sixers led by as many as 16 points — was another instance of the Sixers not locking down a winnable matchup (see observations).
“I don’t think we’ve been focusing down the stretch, missing shots, not calling the right plays, just the little things like that,” Ben Simmons said. “It comes down to us focusing and making sure we’re committed to defense and offense at the same time.”
Turnovers have plagued the Sixers all season (and years beyond that). They rank worst in the league with 18.0 per game, and the errors have been in the spotlight in the last two losses because their opponents have capitalized on them.
The Sixers have given up a total of 49 points off 40 turnovers over the last two games against the Bulls and Kings. That makes up for 22.5 percent of their opponents’ points in those games. They committed six turnovers against the Kings in the fourth quarter alone.
Those late-game errors play into the Sixers’ second-half troubles. They led the Kings by 16 points in the third quarter, only to be outscored 13-0 to start the fourth. The Kings, fueled by that earlier jump, netted 30 points in the final quarter compared to 17 by the Sixers.
“[We] just got stagnant, really,” T.J. McConnell said. “Didn’t have flow like we did in the first half, and that’s kind been our M.O. Kind of just playing well all game and then get stagnant. We’ve got to buckle down, and that’s what cost us. Our defense wasn’t very good either. We had breakdowns, missed assignments. We’ve just got to be better, simple as that.”
The shooting struggles were prominent from long range. The Sixers went 10 for 35 from three (28.6 percent), including a 2-for-13 night by Robert Covington. The Sixers have the green light to shoot from beyond the arc, even during slumps, but they could mix in different looks at the basket without Embiid on the court. The Kings outscored them 48 to 32 in the paint, 15 points below the Sixers’ season average.
“I don’t know if we can pinpoint just one area, where maybe we’re missing shots or turning the ball over,” Jerryd Bayless said. “I think we’re doing a lot of things that are making it very difficult for us.”
Whether a team has a hot shooting night or not, the Sixers have to stay locked in for 48 minutes (or a few overtimes, as the case lately). It can be easy to get flustered when a lead dwindles away, but fighting until the end is required to become a playoff team.
The Sixers will be better suited to do that when their injury list that includes Embiid, Markelle Fultz (shoulder) and Justin Anderson (shin splints) clears up. In the meantime, those who are available need to seize the opportunity to step up and make an impact. Brett Brown said part of navigating the lineup without Embiid is identifying offensive targets.
The Sixers could get more scoring production from their consistent starters. Simmons, for example, attempted just six field goals in 33 minutes (13 points) (see highlights). Dario Saric, who has played well in the past without Embiid, shot 3 for 10 from the field. JJ Redick, who also went 3 for 10, left the game with right hamstring tightness.
“I think we look forward to reclaiming some health, we look forward to reclaiming some form and rebuilding our confidence,” Brown said. “It’s a prideful group, they work hard. I think any time you have this volume of losses in the month of December, you have a tendency to second-guess, I’m sure, it’s human nature of all of us. But we will stay strong and stay together, welcome some healthy people back into the mix, and try to just get better.”
The Sixers have to tackle the 20-8 Raptors in their next two games, one at home and one in Toronto where the Raptors are 11-1.
"We all want to win," Simmons said. "Everybody wants to be here. It’s not one of those things where guys don’t want to win or anything like that. I think we’ll pull it together."