There is almost nothing positive to be extracted from the Sixers’ final two games before the trade deadline on Thursday afternoon, losses to the Celtics and Heat that by the fourth quarter had deteriorated into exhibitions everyone besides the home team and its fans just wanted to end.
The volume and variety of problems are concerning. Brett Brown said before the season that he wanted the No. 1 seed, yet the Sixers sit at sixth in the Eastern Conference and are 9-18 away from Wells Fargo Center.
They’re currently sixth in the NBA in defensive rating. When they’re on the road, though, the Sixers have absorbed a run and failed to provide a meaningful response far too often. Open jumpers clang off the rim, big men get in each other’s way and ideas of them mounting a serious comeback or contending for a championship look foolish. At the same time, the defense suffers.
“That’s been our identity all year, how we bring it on the defensive end,” Tobias Harris told reporters Saturday in Atlanta. “It’s basketball, so obviously you guys are oblivious to the fact that sometimes when the offense isn’t good or the offense isn’t flowing, it does affect the defense. It shouldn’t, but it’s kind have been how we’ve played the last two games.
"It’s something that we’ve gotta get out of, because we’ve had our success from the defensive end and letting that create our offense, and I think we’ve gotta get back to that.”
Harris accurately identified a pattern the Sixers did not fix Monday night. Ben Simmons called the Sixers’ performance “soft,” while Mike Scott said they “just got smacked.”
Brown did not entirely agree with the notion that the Sixers’ offensive frustration had seeped into how they played defense.
I think there might be a little bit but no, I don’t,” he said. “I don't circle back to that. I don't. I think that's a weak excuse. I really do. I think that the defense, the way that we play it, we judge deflections, we judge sort of activity. We didn't have it tonight. … The thing that I don't like is we just left a Boston game that you felt like you needed a little bit more bite and we just didn't have it tonight.
Though it is indeed not a good excuse, frustration is a logical emotion for the Sixers to have about their offense. Since Jan. 1, they have the third-worst offensive rating in the league and are shooting 32 percent from three-point territory. Simmons has been a bright spot during that span and helped the Sixers go 6-3 when Joel Embiid was sidelined by a torn ligament in the ring finger of his left hand, but the offense has been ineffective overall.
Everything has made sense on occasion, like when Embiid dominated and every starter besides Simmons hit at least three long range shots on Christmas vs. the Bucks, or when Harris and Simmons carried the scoring load on Jan. 25 against the Lakers and received timely support from Al Horford.
With 31 regular-season games left, it’s rarely happened on the road.
“All around, we have to play with a better spirit and just more of a connectedness with everybody that’s on the floor,” said Harris, who shot 3 for 12 and missed all six of his three-point attempts against the Heat. “That’s kind of what we’re lacking right now on top of the defense.”
Brown likes to praise the character of his players, and to point to their personal qualities when he's delineating reasons for optimism.
He had no way to spin this loss, no reasonable route toward explaining why his team's “spirit” hadn’t translated to the court.
“I don't know,” he said. “What I do know is that for me it's reflective of defense. I think that when you're sort of like with the guys at practice and shootaround, their eyes are wide, they're good. They're really good. To see it not have carryover on the court lately, it's obviously a concern.
“I think to look further for me … I go to defense first. I think that we had some of our starters struggle tonight, but I thought our defense was poor. And the connection, I think, to the spirit of the group, the attitude of the group, doesn't point to what ended up happening in the game, which normally isn't the case.”
In Brown’s estimation, Monday’s defensive effort wasn't normal. The reality, however, is that the Sixers have regularly shot the ball at a low rate, lacked offensive fluidity and allowed their defense to lapse this season. Even if they are aware of the trend, it is certainly not an encouraging or acceptable trait.
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