The Sixers are not bringing a win back from London. Instead, they will return to Philadelphia with a list of improvements needed to compete with the top talent in the Eastern Conference.
Surrendering leads is not a new issue for the Sixers. They have been prone to giving up game-changing runs, stretches in which their offense stalls and the opponents run up the scoreboard.
On Thursday, the Sixers built a 22-point lead, but didn’t give it all up right away. The Celtics chipped away in the second quarter, then put their foot on the gas in the third to outscore the Sixers by 15. The game was out of the Sixers’ hands from there.
"I think that's the first time we've ever let somebody back in and not done anything about it or made a push,” Ben Simmons told reporters after the Sixers’ 114-103 loss at the O2 Arena (see observations). “They just made a run and we didn't do anything about it, didn't execute plays, didn't get rebounds, didn't get stops. I think that's what it came down to.”
What looked like it had the makings of an upset turned into a reminder of the Sixers’ to-do list. Play four quarters of basketball. Limit turnovers (two in the first quarter, 17 after that). Play team basketball.
The Celtics have too many experienced players to let these windows of opportunities pass them by.
“When you really go back and you say, 'Well, how do you surrender the lead? What are the common reasons that you surrender the lead?'” Brown said. “For us, there have been, at times, not a sort of disciplined way to handle adversity. Sometimes with our youth, this catches us a little off guard. I think structurally, you can point at some turnovers that creep up.”
And part of that growth is the continued development of young talent. Simmons scored 16 points and under his season average with three assists and just two rebounds (see highlights). Joel Embiid recorded a quiet double-double of 15 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. He was scoreless in the first quarter, a slow start when Embiid didn’t settle into a zone.
"If I'm not having fun … another way for me to have fun and kick someone's ass is also talk trash — if I'm not doing that, usually I have bad games,” Embiid said. “I don't think they did anything. I was just not in a rhythm and I didn't do a good job of letting my teammates find me. I don't think they did anything special. But they double-teamed a couple times, I turned the ball over once and I shot a bad shot once, so I've got to correct that."
At 19-20, the Sixers are nearly halfway through the regular season. They currently are one spot out of the eighth seed behind the Pacers. The Sixers will face the 29-11 Raptors on Monday, another top-tier Eastern Conference team they are winless against this season. Their loss to the Celtics should serve as a measuring stick of steps they have to take to not only make the playoffs, but compete in them as well.
“We got out by 22 points. You're playing against the best team in the East, the best defensive team in the NBA, and we didn't react the way we have to,” Brown said. “The physicality got the better of us, the turnovers definitely got the better of us, and it's part of our growth. It's something that .500 teams experience and we're going to have to do better.”