Writing previews for meaningless games is difficult. Without making this too much about myself, because I'm sure you don't care really about how I feel about this, recent 76ers games have mostly damaged my psyche. How do you recover from such a gut-check ending? The Sixers are on that recovery path tonight when they play the Blazers, in their first game since losing in dramatic fashion on Wednesday in Denver on a buzzer-beating three from Former Future Sixer Emmanuel Mudiay. How they respond is a complete unknown.
Brett Brown called the ending "cruel" and hearkens back to the days where Doug Collins basically poured his heart out to reporters about how bad he felt for his team when these endings occur. In both cases, the responsibility for the late-game failures falls partially on the players and partially on the coaches. Like the Sixers under Collins, Brown has employed certain schemes late in games to disastrous results. The cruel irony is that, as unlucky as they were to lose to Denver late, it was as much about the Sixers making their own bed.
The Sixers are terrible in late-game situations, even more than they are during normal situations.
Worst net ratings in 4th quarter with score 5 points or closer— Seth Partnow (@SethPartnow) March 26, 2016
Philly - 18
NOP - 12.6
MIN - 12.1
Utah - 11.8
In the Denver loss, the Sixers coughed up a five-point lead through a familiar brand of "conservative" basketball, where guards dribble the air out of the ball in an attempt to prevent a turnover and easy offense for the other team. It's an attempt to use the clock as defense, and for teams without elite one-on-one scorers is a clearly sub-optimal strategy.
In Tank Year One, the Sixers were outscored by about 10.5 points per 100 possessions worse than the average NBA team, but close-game luck (remember the Spencer Hawes shot?) put got the Sixers to 19 victories. This year, the Sixers are 10.7 points worse than the average NBA team, and endings like Emmanuel Mudiay's miracle shot are going to put the Sixers in the history books. The Sixers are very bad, yes, but also somewhat unlucky, even as they make bad decisions to be put in vulnerable positions.
But tonight those crunch time jitters may not matter. The high point of the season so far was probably a 25-point blowout victory in January against the Portland Trail Blazers. Portland's dynamite guard duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum missed 26 of 36 shots in an embarrassingly flat effort. Former Sixers guard, then of the Blazers, played 12 garbage time minutes. It feels out of place for both teams given their seasons.
Since then, a 18-25 low point of their season*, the Blazers sport a 19-11 record and hold a playoff position in the inseparable bottom half of the Western Conference. Lillard and McCollum haven't both played a game that bad together since. They won't forget what happened, and they won't come out flat.
*If you remember, at that point the Sixers were beating teams and putting coaches on the hot seat on the reg. Good times.
Getting back to the late-game execution, the inability to close-out tightly contested games could also be wearing on the Sixers. Nerlens Noel admitted the losing was getting to him - I can't imagine he is the only frustrated player, especially among others who have now endured anywhere from two to three seasons of losing more than 3/4ths of their games. How the Sixers respond after stewing on that ending for two days might be the difference between having a somewhat competitive game and tornado-like blowout.
Part of the Process's designed success hinges on having players who respond well in the face of adversity. Last season's lovable underdogs played a consistent high-energy brand of basketball that raised from them to run-of-the-mill awful from the expected level of historically awful. Even with clearly more talent at their disposal, this year's team hasn't handled the consistent talent deficit as well, and maybe we should have been foolish to expect that to continue. That might be the greatest lesson learned from this year's team. Here's hoping that they can wrestle away a win and avoid infamy.
Go to the incomparable Blazer's Edge for Portland-based coverage of an important game for the playoff seedings, and come join us late on a Saturday night.