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Sixers succeeding in close games

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Philadelphia has won 6 of 7 one-possession games this season.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Brooklyn Nets Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

In Marc Stein’s most recent newsletter for the New York Times, he brought up the interesting statistic that Philadelphia is 6-1 in one-possession games this season. Intuitively, I knew the Sixers were winning a lot of close games. A team can’t hold third place in the conference with a 0.0 net rating otherwise. But I hadn’t quite realized the extreme degree of the team’s success in close games.

NBA.com’s clutch stats further backs up the notion. The Sixers have tied for the most games that enter the clutch (games within 5 points in the last 5 minutes) with 14 such contests. So they’re playing a ton of close games, and winning a lot of them, going 11-3 in those games for a league-best .786 winning percentage.

Now, what do we make of this success in close games for the Sixers? On the one hand, they’re winning! That’s good! As Herm Edwards so famously put it, “you play to win the game. You don’t play to just play it.” Long-term player development aside, all that ultimately matters is scratching off another tally in the “W” column of the standings.

Furthermore, people like to say down the stretch of close games are a fair approximation of a playoff environment, because players are especially locked in with the game on the line. Succeeding under those circumstances would seem to bode well for the Sixers come spring. The #FireBrettBrown internet legions might be surprised to learn the Sixers head coach has largely been pushing the right buttons with games on the line.

On the other hand though, why are the Sixers playing so many close games in the first place? A running narrative this season has been Philadelphia’s propensity to build a big, early lead, only to blow it later. Let’s look specifically at the team’s 7 one-possession games, and drill down on why they were even close.

10/20/18: PHI 116, ORL 115 - The Sixers initially trailed by 16 points, only to quickly bounce back and build a 13-point advantage, which then evaporated in the second half. JJ Redick hit a go-ahead three-pointer with 17 seconds remaining.

10/23/18: DET 133, PHI 132 (OT) - Philadelphia only ever led by a modest 10 points. Blake Griffin tied the game with a jumper with 34 seconds left in regulation, then won it with a go-ahead three-point-play with one second remaining in overtime.

10/27/18: PHI 105, CHA 103 - The Sixers never had a double-digit lead, having a largest lead of just 9 points. Kemba Walker sank two of three free throws with 2 seconds left to make this a one-possession game.

11/9/18: PHI 133, CHA 132 (OT) - Philadelphia built a huge 21-point lead, but blew that in part by being outscored by 11 points in the fourth quarter. Joel Embiid hit two free throws to tie the game with 25 seconds left in regulation. Willy Hernangomez’s three-pointer at the overtime buzzer made the final score a bit closer.

11/17/18: PHI 122, CHA 119 (OT) - The Sixers scored 42 points in the first quarter and led this game by as many as 17 points. Kemba Walker going off for 60 points eventually turned the tide. He sank two free throws with 16 seconds left in regulation to tie the game. Jimmy Butler hit the game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer in overtime.

11/21/18: PHI 121, NOR 120 - The Sixers had a 16-point lead, but were outscored by 8 points in the fourth quarter to make this game closer than it needed to be. Anthony Davis was fouled on a three-pointer with 2 seconds left, but missed the third shot to secure the win for Philadelphia.

11/25/18: PHI 127, BKN 125 - This time, Brooklyn had the huge lead, getting out in front by as many as 20 points. The Sixers stormed back in the fourth quarter, winning the game courtesy of a Jimmy Butler three-pointer with 2 seconds left that was nearly identical to his shot against Charlotte.

First off, enough with the Hornets already! I’ve seen enough of Kemba Walker draining pull-up shots as a Sixers big man hangs back on the pick-and-roll to last a lifetime. Looking closely at the games, it doesn’t appear that the blowing of big leads has been quite as prevalent as I thought. The Sixers had three games where they blew leads of 16 points or more, but they were all grouped together over a short 13-day period, likely cementing the narrative in fans’ minds.

Will the Sixers continue to win close games at a high rate moving forward? Hard to say. It’s still been a relatively small sample size thus far. Jimmy Butler isn’t going to keep shooting 100% on three-pointers in the last 10 seconds of one-possession games. However, when things tighten up, there’s a not insignificant chance that having 3 top-25 players on the court together is conducive to winning basketball games.

All stats are as of 11/27/18.