76ers

Familiar problems have Sixers in a funk

Familiar problems have Sixers in a funk

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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."

Sixers have already embraced key aspects of NBA postseason

Sixers have already embraced key aspects of NBA postseason

Perhaps the Sixers have been underestimated a bit.

Outside of Joel Embiid’s health, all of the chatter going into the playoffs was about how the relatively inexperienced roster would handle the big stage. 

Sure, the team has a crop of veterans that have been there and done that. However, young impact players such as Embiid, Ben Simmons and Dario Saric were all getting their first taste of the postseason.

So how are they feeling about it to this point?

“I love it,” Embiid said at Friday’s practice. “I live for these moments. I thrive in this type of atmosphere. I think I was built for this, especially playoff basketball.”

Embiid appears particularly fond of the postseason in environments where the Sixers are short on support.

After missing the first two games of the series in Philadelphia while still recovering from orbital fracture surgery, Embiid stepped back into the starting lineup on the road in Miami.

Was getting barked at by rowdy fans in hostile territory going to be a problem? Not for the villain now known as “The Phantom of the Process.”

“I actually think I play better on the road because I just love the atmosphere,” Embiid said. “I just love looking around the arena, people booing, people going against us. That just takes my game to another level.”

The Sixers’ performance isn’t the only thing that has been taken up a notch. Their intensity level and physicality have jumped in this first-round matchup with the bruising Heat.

“I said it before, I wish it was like this all season,” said Simmons, who is averaging 20.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 9.7 assists per game in the series. “I’m enjoying it. It’s very competitive and that’s the type of basketball I want to play.”

“It’s basketball. It’s fun,” Justin Anderson said. “Playing like that is fun. Every possession matters. You can tell there’s not a lot of empty possessions. Guys are getting shots up on every possession.

“… It’s intensified. It’s just basketball. It’s the best basketball in the world, and we’re putting ourselves in a position to hopefully go and get another one in Game 4.”

Heat's Justise Winslow fined $15K for stepping on Joel Embiid's mask

Heat's Justise Winslow fined $15K for stepping on Joel Embiid's mask

The NBA dished out some swift justice on Friday night.

Heat swingman Justise Winslow was fined $15,000 by the league for unsportsmanlike conduct after intentionally stepping on and attempting to damage Joel Embiid’s mask during the Sixers’ Game 3 win in Miami (see story).

With 7:51 remaining in the second quarter, the goggles portion of Embiid’s mask fell onto the court. Winslow stepped on the goggles with his left foot before picking them up and trying to break them with his hands.

“He kept throwing it on the ground, so I don’t know if he didn’t like it or what,” Winslow said. “But I was talking to JoJo, we were smack talking, trash talking, going back and forth. No love lost.”

The incident definitely didn’t stop Embiid in his postseason debut. The big man returned from orbital surgery to put up 23 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three blocks in the Sixers’ 128-108 victory.

“Justise stepped on it and tried to break it with his hands,” Embiid said. “But little do they know is that I have about 50 of them. So it’s going to take much more than that to get me out of the series. 

“I’m going to be a nightmare for them, too.”