Despite having won 2 in a row and 3 of their last 4, the Sixers came into last night's game against the Atlanta Hawks with the odds stacked against them.
The Hawks, winners of 22 of their previous 25 games, were playing as well as anybody in the league. Their defense, anchored by Al Horford and Thabo Sefolosha, ranked 4th in the league. Their balanced offense ranked 6th.
The Hawks began a 4-games-in-5-nights road trip last night, which influenced their decision to rest Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, and DeMarre Carroll against the Sixers.
And, for the first 18 or so minutes of play, it looked like the Sixers might be able to keep the game close. An And-1 from Michael Carter-Williams tied the game at 33 with 6:43 remaining in the second quarter. But the Hawks went on a 16-4 run to close out the second half to put them up 12 at the break, and the game was never in question from there on out, with the Hawks leaving Philadelphia victors by a score of 105-87.
Both the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers feature head coach's from Gregg Popovich's coaching tree. Before joining the Hawks in 2013, Mike Budenholzer was Popovich's top assistant. Brown, who would have taken over the role of top assistant had he stayed with the Spurs, left that summer as well, eventually joining the Philadelphia 76ers in August.
The Atlanta Hawks are a team who look like the San Antonio Spurs when they play basketball. The Sixers are a team that talks about one day looking like the Spurs.
And that's not to take anything away from Brett Brown or the Sixers staff. The teams are at two very different stages of their life cycle. But in a game being played in the present, it seemed, at times, unfair. The Hawks exceptional ball movement allowed them to find every mismatch, to pick apart the Sixers slow defensive rotations and get open shots at will.
It was a thing of beauty, at least for one of the two teams playing.
"I think the ball got a little bit stagnant," Nerlens Noel said after the game. "I didn't think too many guys had fun tonight.
"I love to pass the ball myself. We have to make sure that's contagious," Noel continued. "Hopefully we can start to build it as a habit, [an] every game habit, so guys can be able to have fun playing this game."
"The pass is still something that just drives me to not get much sleep. It haunts me," Sixers head coach Brett Brown said after the game. "I know the ripple effects [it can have on the team]. The importance of sharing the ball is everything. We need to get better at that."
How can they get better at that?
"I think familiarity with each other, familiarity with the system, [from] me as a coach never letting it go," Brown said.
Brown talked about the stages of grief he goes through when dissecting why his team so frequently struggles with ball movement.
"We talk about groundhogs day a lot. To show the same tape, and the same theme, often, you get to a stage where 'If they're not learning it, I'm not teaching it well enough'," Brown said. "Then you get to a point where 'Maybe it's not in them? And maybe that's not the player we want?'
"I have to grow it, we have to talk about it, we have to promote it. We need to, as a team, understand that that's what makes the world go around," Brown said.
The Hawks, who lead the league in assists per game at 25.7, had an incredible 34 assists on their 42 made field goals. They are 2nd in the league in three point percentage at a staggering 38.6%, and shot 42.2% on 23 three point attempts against the Sixers, with most of them uncontested. 18 of the Hawks 29 jump shots were uncontested (62.1%), compared to 11 of the Sixers 27 (40.7%).
The Hawks were led by Al Horford, who finished the game with 21 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists, the first triple double of his career. Kyle Korver, who started the game by missing his first 3 three point attempts, didn't miss the rest of the night, finishing with 15 points on 5-8 from the field, including 4-7 from three point range. The Hawks got 13 points and 6 assists from Dennis Schroder, who filled in as the starting point for the resting Jeff Teague.
The Sixers actually shot fairly well from three point range themselves, connecting on 9-25 from three point range, especially impressive considering Robert Covington, the Sixers most consistent three point shooter, shot 0-7 from deep. K.J. McDaniels (2-3), Jerami Grant (2-3), Michael Carter-Williams (1-2), Hollis Thompson (1-1), JaKarr Sampson (1-2), Luc Mbah a Moute (1-3), and Tony Wroten (1-4) all made at least one three for the Sixers.
Despite the fact that the game was never really in doubt during the second half, there were some positives for the Sixers. K.J. McDaniels, who struggled during the month of December where he shot only 34% from the field and 18.2% from three point range, had another strong game. The rookie played at least 29 minutes for the 4th time in the last 5 games, averaging 11.2 points on 55.6% shooting during that span, including 54.5% from three point range. Michael Carter-Williams had one of his better scoring nights of the season, scoring 20 points on 8-13 shooting. The Sixers also got a career high 13 points from Jerami Grant, who connected on 2 of his 3 three point attempts. Grant has made 2 three pointers in each of his last two games and is shooting 5-8 from three point range over his last 3.
The Sixers were also boosted by the return of Hollis Thompson, who hadn't played since December 19th due to an upper respiratory infection. Thompson played 17 minutes on the night, adding in 7 points on 3-4 shooting.
"I thought Hollis played well," Brown said. " It's good to have him back. We need more firepower."
It was the struggles of 2nd year forward Robert Covington that was at the forefront of the Sixers struggles offensively. As Covington goes, the Sixers tend to go, and he was off last night. Covington went 0-7 from three point range, the first time he has failed to record a made three point field goal since November 29th.
In the 7 games the Sixers have won, Covington has averaged 16.6 points while shooting 47% from the field and 45.2% from three point range. In Sixers losses that Covington has played in, he has averaged 11 points per night while shooting 37.2% from the field and 39.1% from three.
After a string of winnable games, that the Sixers capitalized on by winning three of four, the Sixers now begin another brutal stretch where they play 4 games in 5 nights and 12 games in 19 days to close out January. The Sixers will play the Toronto Raptors tonight in Toronto.
"I think it's great for the young guys because it's reality. It's the league that we play in," Brown said about the upcoming schedule. "This is just the reality of our sport, the reality of our league, and a real eye opener to our young guys.
"The pace, the relentless pace of travel and games and expectations, demands from the coaches," Brown continued. "I think it is overwhelming at times, but that's just the way it goes."
Tony Wroten left in the second half of last night's game with a right knee sprain, and would not return to the game.
After the game, Brett Brown said that it was unlikely Wroten would travel with the team to Toronto.
"I don't believe he will," Brown said. "So we're reduced to Michael and JaKarr [at the point], and off we go to Canada."
Wroten's right knee has been troublesome all year. He initially suffered a right knee sprain against the Nets on November 26th, which caused him to miss the next 6 games. He then missed December 23rd's road victory against the Miami Heat due to the same injury.
There's no word yet on how much time Wroten is expected to miss.