It's time for the Sixers to get dirty

It's time for the Sixers to get dirty


Basketball can be a finesse game, one with ooh-and-ahh-inspiring dunks and three-point shots that put highlight reels on repeat.

Dario Saric is ready to abandon that style for a gritty approach he believes can turn around the Sixers’ skid.

“We need to come on the court and play dirty, play tough,” Saric said. “Sometimes it’s maybe not fancy, maybe it’s not looking good. We need to just come and maybe have the right play, tough play.”

After jumping out to a hot start this season, the Sixers have lost eight of their last nine games. They dropped to 14-17 after giving up a 22-point third-quarter lead in a 114-109 loss to the Raptors (see observations). DeMar DeRozan scored a career-high 45 points. 

The Sixers were shorthanded without starters Joel Embiid (back tightness) and JJ Redick (right hamstring tightness), but once again failed to hold on to a second-half advantage. They did the same at nearly the same point in the third quarter against the Kings on Tuesday. 

“I think they jumped us,” Brett Brown said. “They just crawled into us. It wasn’t like they double-teamed Ben (Simmons) or they blitzed pick-and-rolls. They got physical.”

The same type of physicality Saric was calling for after the loss. The Raptors committed to playing the Sixers in the second half with the same toughness the Sixers exhibited in the first. They stifled the Sixers with a 14-0 run and erased the 22-point differential while knocking down 5 of 8 threes during that stretch. 

“We just were a lot more aggressive, making everything tough for them,” DeRozan said. “We didn’t want them to get any open shots, no feel-good shots, nothing easy going to the basket. We made everything hard.”

The Sixers, on the other hand, made the game easier for the Raptors by basically handing out free points. The Raptors scored 32 points off 35 free throw attempts (DeRozan shot 13 of 15) and another 32 points off 24 turnovers. Eleven of the Raptors’ 34 points in the third came from the six Sixers’ errors. 

“At the end of the day, we’ve got to fix it,” Brown said of turnovers. “I’m the head coach. It is on me and it keeps us up late at night.”

While Brown points to himself on turnovers, Saric sees the Sixers’ recent struggles as a task for the entire team. After all, the competition doesn’t lighten up because of a depleted roster. The Sixers face the Raptors again on Saturday before playing the above-.500 Knicks, Trail Blazers, Nuggets as well as the upset-capable Suns on the road. 

“It’s on us as players to fix it,” Saric said. “Coach has tried to help us every day to be ready.”

Maybe more grit can turn things around. Maybe extra fight for, say, rebounds and loose balls can spark a win. Maybe Saric's call for this approach will boost the Sixers out of this slump. And if it does, "ugly" basketball won't look so bad after all. 

“If it’s the ugly play, sometimes I think if we start to do things like that, we can be so much better,” Saric said. 

Cavs stuck in 'Strugglesville' but still manage to survive

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Cavs stuck in 'Strugglesville' but still manage to survive

CLEVELAND -- There was none of the usual postgame chatter or music in the Cavaliers locker room.

The mood was somber and quiet, not the same place.

"Right now we're in Strugglesville," LeBron James said. "But it felt like a win. We needed it. Definitely."

Isaiah Thomas made two free throws with 11 seconds left and Cleveland came up with a defensive stop in the frantic final seconds after blowing a 23-point lead to beat the Orlando Magic 104-103 on Thursday night and snap a four-game losing streak.

After Thomas made his shots, Orlando's Elfrid Payton missed a contested layup with three seconds left. The three officials ruled there was an inadvertent whistle and held a jump ball at midcourt.

Magic forward Aaron Gordon grabbed the toss and sank a 45-footer as the horn sounded and Cleveland's crowd shrieked in disbelief. But Gordon committed a jump-ball violation with the move and Cleveland only had to inbound the ball to come away with a victory following a crazy and exhausting final sequence that left everyone dazed.

"No, I don't," said Thomas when asked if he knew what happened. "It was a lot of back and forth. I'm just glad we just came out with the win" (see full recap).

Rockets cruise past Timberwolves in Harden’s return
HOUSTON -- Eric Gordon scored 30 points to lead the Houston Rockets to a 116-98 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday night.

James Harden returned to the Rockets' lineup after missing seven games with a left hamstring strain and finished with 10 points on 3-for-15 shooting, and added seven assists, two steals and two blocks in 26 minutes. Houston went 4-3 in his absence.

Chris Paul had 19 points, nine assists and six rebounds, and Clint Capela added 20 points for the Rockets. Houston has won 15 of the past 17 meetings with Minnesota, including a 10-game winning streak at home.

Gordon closed out a big third quarter by hitting a buzzer-beating 3-pointer off the glass from a step behind the half-court line. After hitting the shot under heavy pressure from Andrew Wiggins, Gordon gave a high-five to Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who was sitting courtside near the shot.

Gordon's 3-pointer helped the Rockets finish the third quarter on a 16-4 run to take an 89-70 lead into the fourth with their largest advantage of the game. Gordon made 11 of 19 shots, including 7 of 13 from 3, and fell just short of his season-high 33 points against Utah on Dec. 18.

With Rockets small forward Trevor Ariza sitting out the first part of a two-game suspension for a postgame locker room incident on Monday night in Los Angeles, Luc Mbah a Moute started in Ariza's place, scoring 14 points in 32 minutes.

Along with Ariza, reserve guard Gerald Green was also serving the first of a two-game suspension for the altercation with the Clippers (see full recap).

Blazers top Pacers for 5th straight home win
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Damian Lillard scored 26 points and eight assists, Jusuf Nurkic had 19 points and a season-high 17 rebounds, and the Portland Trail Blazers won their fifth consecutive home game, beating the Indiana Pacers 100-86 on Thursday night.

C.J. McCollum added 16 points and Shabazz Napier 13 for Portland, which seems to have its homecourt mojo back, winning five straight after dropping six consecutive home games in early December. The Blazers also beat Indiana for the ninth consecutive time on their home floor.

Victor Oladipo and Darren Collison scored 23 points each for Indiana.

Portland took control late in the third quarter, when the Blazers held Indiana scoreless for more than five minutes. It was part of Portland's 21-2 run, during which Napier scored eight points to help erase a six-point deficit and give the Blazers an 89-76 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

Indiana was without forward Myles Turner, the team's second-leading scorer this season. Turner has missed five consecutive games with a right elbow injury (see full recap).

Sixers suddenly beating once unbeatable teams

Sixers suddenly beating once unbeatable teams


BOSTON — What a difference two games make.

The Sixers entered this week 0-8 against the top three Eastern Conference teams: the Celtics, Cavaliers and Raptors. By Thursday night, they had picked up two straight wins over them.

The Sixers followed up Monday’s victory over the Raptors with an 89-80 win over the Celtics (see observations)

“I think we are in a good position right now,” Ben Simmons said. “Still a lot of improvement, a lot of things we’ve got to pick up on, but I think we are doing really well and getting better.” 

All season long, a downfall of the Sixers has been giving up leads. Ten, 15, 20 points have been erased just like that. 

The Sixers’ largest advantage was 21 points in the last two games, and in both instances their opponents fought back. The Raptors cut the lead to one with three minutes to play; the Celtics got within seven with two minutes on the clock.

Unlike in the past, the Sixers held on for wins.

“We’ve been in that situation too many times,” Joel Embiid said. “We just have to stay calm and keep moving the ball. We made a couple mistakes, but everything was fine and we got the win.” 

The game was missing two key players. The Celtics were shorthanded without their leading scorer, Kyrie Irving (shoulder). The Sixers were down starting shooting guard JJ Redick (leg). Brett Brown considered their absences “almost a wash.” 

Newly-announced All-Star starter Embiid led all players with 26 points, 16 rebounds and six assists, his 19th double-double of the season. 

“They are still a great team,” Brown said of the Celtics. “For us to come in here and build a lead, hold onto the lead, close out the game, and at times not in a pretty way, is a fantastic result for us.” 

With the win, the Sixers snapped a seven-game losing streak at TD Garden dating back to April 4, 2014. They also avoided a regular-season sweep by the Celtics. 

The Sixers moved above .500 (21-20) and into the eight spot in the East. The Celtics and Raptors could be postseason pairings if the Sixers hold their ground in the standings, a scenario they are well aware of in these regular-season games. 

“I don’t know what seed we are going to be, but that’s a potential matchup in the playoffs,” Embiid said. “We always want to come out and try to dominate and let them know that’s it’s not going to be easy.”