The Sixers, now 9-21 on the road this season after a 108-94 loss Wednesday night to the Cavaliers in which Joel Embiid sprained his left shoulder, clearly have many areas they need to address away from Wells Fargo Center.
But, when asked the biggest thing the team needs to correct before playing the Knicks on Thursday at home, Josh Richardson only needed one word.
“Heart,” he told reporters in Cleveland.
The 17-win Cavs shot 52.6 percent from the field and, at one point, had a 30-6 advantage in points in the paint.
Shake Milton started again in place of Ben Simmons, who’s out with a nerve impingement in his lower back, and he was probably the Sixers’ best player, with a team-high 20 points, four rebounds, four assists and no turnovers.
Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson combined to shoot 12 for 35. Against a Cleveland team led by 21-year-old Collin Sexton (28 points), any one of those three players performing well in the absence of the Sixers’ two All-Stars might have been enough to help the team snap a six-game road losing streak.
“I think just our defense and just physicality was a C-minus,” Brett Brown said. “I think it was a C-minus. … I feel like when you don’t have Joel and you don’t have Ben, it’s an opportunity for others to put their hand[s] up and declare, ’This is who we are.’ And it is who we are, it’s who we have been. Tonight was not one of them. I really felt from that sort of physical standpoint, we were a C-minus.”
After the Sixers' last home loss, way back in December, Richardson had named effort as an issue. He’s been willing to call out concerns publicly in his first year with the team, and he initiated a players-only meeting earlier this month.
“I think it just starts with playing harder … I think that’s a good problem to have to fix — there could be a lot worse things,” he’d said on Dec. 20. “I think if it starts there, then we’ll be working with something at that point.”
Good problems don’t exist anymore for the Sixers, who are fifth in the Eastern Conference with 23 regular-season games left and, just four games after the All-Star break, have seen both of their All-Stars suffer injuries.
Defensive execution and intensity have been common issues on the road, and they were exacerbated when Embiid left the game.
“[Not] having such a big presence at the rim on defense to protect us whenever us guards make mistakes was kind of tough for us to deal with,” Milton said. “We didn't do a very good job of making the adjustments.”
Even when fully healthy, this was a team that often admitted they were still trying to figure things out and looking for answers. They didn’t have any without Embiid and Simmons in Cleveland.
“I think it had a big impact,” Horford said of Embiid's injury. “Obviously we plan on playing through him and leaning on him a lot. Once he was out, I felt like we didn’t really know what was next for our group.”
“Heart” is, of course, impossible to measure. The nagging, tangible concerns the Sixers do have — injuries chief among them at the moment — are plenty to worry about by themselves.
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