PHILADELPHIA — A 16-point second-half lead against one of the bottom feeders of the NBA was exactly what the Philadelphia 76ers needed – and eventually attained – on Tuesday night to try and snap out of their recent doldrums.
But….wha…what happened was…
Somehow, that 16-point lead evaporated, and cold shooting down the stretch plus some inspired play by both seasoned veteran and young player alike lifted the Sacramento Kings to a 101-95 victory over the 76ers, as the raucous cheers that filled the Wells Fargo Center just an hour before the final buzzer turned into audible boos as a near half-empty arena by the end of the game was left a bit stunned by the turnaround.
A victory in its first game of this month, against the Detroit Pistons, left Philadelphia (14-16) at 13-9, leaving many people in NBA circles wondering how good this team can be this season. Now the Sixers have lost seven out of eight since then, and the questions about what’s going wrong on the court is all that will encompass the team at the moment.
It’s still too early for the panic button to be pushed, and Sixers coach Brett Brown is chalking this poor run of results up, rightly, to the ups and downs of any NBA season.
“We have some players that are down in form,” said Brown in the postgame press conference. “I think that when you look at some of the shooting percentages and some of the open three looks that we’ve had in some of our recent games, they just haven’t gone in and it’s part of an NBA season and I think, tonight, when you start looking at some of the percentages, some of those shots just didn’t go in.”
The fourth quarter, in particular, was ghastly, as the Sixers shot just 5-for-20 from the floor while allowing the Kings to score 30 points in the frame as Sacramento overcame a seven-point deficit to begin the quarter to record just their 10th in of the season (10-20).
Another issue that easily could be raised about the Sixers now is whether they play down to their level of competition. Four of the seven losses in this stretch include home defeats to the Kings, Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Lakers, as well as a road loss this past Monday night to the Chicago Bulls. Those four teams sport a combined record of 40-79. Its only win during that stretch was an impressive road victory over the 18-13 Minnesota Timberwolves, and the most memorable game of the octet of games was its triple-overtime loss on national television to the star-studded Oklahoma City Thunder.
“I don’t know what it is,” said Sixers guard Ben Simmons when asked why the team has performed better against the top-tier teams in the league but has struggled with those currently lower in the standings. “I think we’ve just got to come together and compete, figure it out as a team. We all want to, everybody wants to be here. It’s not one of those things where guys don’t want to win or anything like that. I think we’ll pull it together.”
What certainly will help in pulling it together is the return of Joel Embiid, who sat out a second consecutive game with lower back tightness after playing almost 49 minutes in the three-OT loss to the Thunder last Friday. Going into Tuesday’s game against Sacramento, the Sixers were 13-10 with Embiid on the floor but, after tonight’s loss, are now 1-6 when Embiid does not play. In those seven games sans The Process, Philadelphia is averaging just shy of 105 points per game while allowing almost 114.
“I think we look forward to reclaiming some health, we look forward to reclaiming some form and rebuilding our confidence,” said Brown. “It’s a prideful group, they work hard. I think any time you have this volume of losses in the month of December, you have a tendency to second-guess shots. It’s human nature of all of us. But we will stay strong and stay together.”
Sacramento, on the other hand, pulled off one of its most impressive victories of the season just a couple of days after a close loss against one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams in Toronto. What made the win even more impressive was the fact that the Kings were without their starting backcourt as the comeback started, with George Hill missing the game entirely through illness and De’Aaron Fox leaving the game at halftime due to a thigh injury.
In their places stepped second-year guard Buddy Hield, who scored 24 points off the bench, and rookie guard Frank Mason III, who hit seven of his nine shot attempts – including 2-for-2 on threes – on his way to 16 points. Even seldom-used guard Malachi Richardson, who saw extended time because of the aforementioned injuries, contributed greatly to the win in his 19 minutes of action, grabbing four rebounds as Sacramento was plus-17 when he was out on the floor.
As the young players grew up a little more tonight, the team’s veterans also helped the Kings get over the finish line. Zach Randolph led the team with 27 points, scoring 10 of those in the third quarter to initially spark the Kings’ comeback. Another veteran, Garrett Temple, impressed tonight with his two-way play, as he had nine points, eight rebounds and four assists in the game; He scored all nine of his points and grabbed four rebounds in the final stanza.
“Our guys don’t quit,” said Kings head coach Dave Joerger. “They keep competing and they like each other. They are helping each other. There was some stuff out there tonight that I go, ‘Oh my gosh, I have not seen that.’ We support each other, we let them know of the correction that has to be made and then everyone is supportive of that.”
The corrections that the Sixers need to make need to come soon to break out of their first prolonged funk of the season, and Simmons believes that what’s needed is just a little more attention to detail.
“I don’t think we’ve been focusing down the stretch,” Simmons said. “Missing shots, not calling the right plays, little things like that. It comes down to us focusing and making sure we’re committed to defense and offense at the same time.”