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."

Cousins posts historic triple-double in double-overtime win

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USA Today Images

Cousins posts historic triple-double in double-overtime win

NEW ORLEANS — DeMarcus Cousins had 44 points, 24 rebounds and 10 assists, Anthony Davis scored 34 points, and the All-Star pair led a 17-point New Orleans comeback in the final five minutes of regulation before the Pelicans pulled out a 132-128 victory over the Chicago Bulls in double overtime Monday night.

Cousins scored seven points in the second overtime on a 3-pointer, a turnaround jumper and two free throws with 8.2 seconds left. He became the first NBA player since Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1972 to have as many as 40 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists in a game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

E'Twaun Moore scored 15 points, including a 3 in the second overtime to help the Pelicans win for the fifth time in six games.

Jerian Grant had 22 points and 13 assists, and Robin Lopez also scored 22 for the Bulls, who appeared well on their way to their fifth victory in six games when they opened the fourth quarter with a 23-5 run to take their largest lead at 104-86.

Chicago still led by 17 when Bobby Portis hit a pair of free throws with 5:06 left in the fourth quarter. But Cousins and Davis led New Orleans back with a stunning 21-2 run. Jrue Holiday tied it at 110 on a 3 with 46 seconds left, and Davis briefly gave New Orleans the lead with an alley-oop dunk of Holiday's lob (see full recap).

Murray's 38 points lead Nuggets over Trail Blazers
DENVER — Jamal Murray scored a career-high 38 points, including a three-point play in the final minute, and the Denver Nuggets beat the Portland Trail Blazers 104-101 on Monday night.

Nikola Jokic had 16 points and 12 rebounds, and Will Barton hit four free throws in the final 10 seconds to secure the win and spoil Jusuf Nurkic's return to Denver.

Nurkic had 19 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in his first game back at Pepsi Center. Damian Lillard had 25 points and seven assists for Portland.

Nurkic played two-plus seasons with the Nuggets to begin his career, and was playing his first game in Denver since he was dealt to Portland last season. He received a smattering of boos when he was introduced as a starter and a few during the game (see full recap).

Bucks beat Suns hours after firing Kidd
MILWAUKEE — Khris Middleton spent three-plus years under Jason Kidd's tutelage, blossoming into a dangerous scorer with the Milwaukee Bucks.

He showed off what he learned in the Bucks' first game without Kidd.

Middleton scored 35 points, Malcolm Brogdon added a career-high 32 and Milwaukee beat the Phoenix Suns 109-105 on Monday night hours after firing Kidd.

"It's tough for me," Middleton said. "He took my game to another level. He took this team to a whole other level. Today was a tough day."

Assistant Joe Prunty was promoted to replace Kidd for the rest of the year. After a slow start, the Bucks heeded the new coach's call to focus (see full recap).

Rockets come back to top Heat
HOUSTON — Chris Paul wasn't thrilled with how the Houston Rockets played Monday night.

The veteran was perfectly happy with the outcome though.

James Harden scored 28 points and the Rockets overcame a big early deficit to beat the Miami Heat 99-90.

"You have those games during the season where (you) win the game and move on ... out of 82 of them sometimes it's going to be ugly, but you just want to win," Paul said.

Miami led by double digits before halftime, but the game stayed close throughout most of the second half. It was tied with about three minutes left when Harden hit a 3-pointer just before the shot clock expired. That was the start of a 7-2 run that made it 95-90 with 38 seconds left (see full recap).

Sixers' loss falls on Brown? No, his stars went missing

Sixers' loss falls on Brown? No, his stars went missing

BOX SCORE

For a team that almost won its eighth game in nine tries Monday night, the flaws on this Sixers squad are obvious.

They blow big leads.

They turn the ball over too much.

They don’t have a dependable perimeter scorer late in the game.

And they’re reliant on their stars to cover up those problems. While Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot’s season-high 20 points (see highlights) and Dario Saric’s 22 almost saved the team Monday, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have to show up if the Sixers want to win night in and night out, and they didn’t in an ugly 105-101 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies (see observations).

“Our stars weren’t stars tonight, and our wings were below average," Brett Brown told reporters. "I think [Luwawu-Cabarrot] played well. I think in general the story should be the turnovers. You can’t win any NBA game that matters, and you certainly can’t even consider the playoffs, if this ends up just part of who we are.”

The Sixers, who led the NBA with 18.1 turnovers per game entering Monday’s contest, had 24 turnovers compared to just 12 for the Grizzlies. Ten of those turnovers came in the fourth quarter.

Twenty-four turnovers, and 39 points off those turnovers, are obviously unacceptable statistics. But Brown knows a young team that plays fast like the Sixers will have plenty of games with turnover totals in the high-teens. The Sixers can win those games, but only if their stars play like stars.

Simmons had only eight field goal attempts against the Grizzlies, and didn’t take a free throw for the second straight game. He had just six points along with seven assists and four turnovers.

Embiid scored 15 points, going 5 for 13 from the field and 5 for 9 from the line. While the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week pulled down 14 rebounds, he wasn’t himself.

“This wasn’t one of Jo’s games,” Brown said. “For whatever reason, from the start to the end, this just wasn’t one of his games. It was clear there wasn’t much going on tonight. When you see him miss the type of free throws that he missed, you know something’s going on. He’s had a great season, he’s a Player of the Week, and sometimes those games happen.”

Like Brown, Simmons was frustrated with the loss, and he agreed with his coach’s sentiment that “the stars weren’t stars.”

“Yeah, we weren’t,” Simmons said. “We sucked. We didn’t make big plays down the stretch, didn’t take care of the ball. Defensively, we weren’t too bad, but yeah, he’s right.”

Coaching this Sixers team is not an easy job. It may look easy when Embiid is playing like the second coming of Hakeem Olajuwon and Simmons is making freakish play after freakish play, but Brown must feel helpless as he watches his young team gift the opposition free points while its big lead vanishes. When the Sixers win, it’s been pretty, but many of the losses have followed the same ugly pattern.

Brown can stress how important it is to take care of the ball, call timeouts to try to stop the opponent’s momentum and draw up plays to get his stars the ball in crunch time. He did all of those things Monday, and it wasn’t enough, because Embiid and Simmons had off nights on the same night. Many Sixers fans will want Brown to do more and will think this team should be beyond these sort of collapses. While that's a fair perspective, you can also understand Brown's exasperation.

“I thought that we had not much leadership,” Brown said. “I thought our poise was poor. I thought it was an immature loss. I think it’s a game where you look at the mistakes that were made and the opportunities that we blew, those types of words come to mind. It’s not something that we leave Memphis dusting off, thinking that there are 82 games and stuff like this happens — that’s not good enough. This is a game we should have won, we were in a position to win and we didn’t have the maturity to close it out.”