Sizing Up the Sixers (28-52): Find us New England native since Ben Franklin who has more wholly embraced Philadelphia than Brett Brown, and we’ll acknowledge that a lobster roll (Connecticut style, not Maine) can be every bit as satisfying as a roast pork sandwich.
Even before his hiring in August of 2013, the 76ers’ head coach – raised in South Portland, Maine, and college-educated at Boston University – had a sense about this city, and the greater Delaware Valley, for that matter. His inkling was that, when unlocked, Philadelphia’s passion for professional basketball could rival that of any of the NBA’s 29 other towns.
At various stages this season, for sure, the fervor was flowing through The Center, confirming Brown’s initial instincts.
“We felt it,” Brown said Saturday, before the Sixers hosted the Milwaukee Bucks on Fan Appreciation Night. “We all got that little sort of snapshot in January, and the city changed, the building changed, for sure, but the city did, too. And we all are reminded that this thing can blow up. This city can blow up in a great way.”
Monday against the Indiana Pacers, the Sixers will not only conclude a four-game homestand, from which they will again try to salvage a win, but also make their final appearance of the season in the arena they’ve occupied since 1996.
Without question, a key component to the Sixers’ overall progress this campaign can be attributed to improved results at home. Heading into Monday’s outing versus Indiana, the Sixers had posted 17 victories in South Philadelphia, easily their highest total dating back to Brown’s arrival. Prior to the current year, they had managed 10 home wins in Brown’s 2013-2014 debut year, 12 in 2014-2015, and only seven in 2015-2016.
Largely responsible for spurring the Sixers’ increased success at The Center this season were two separate winning streaks, one that lasted four games in mid-November, and another that spanned six consecutive contests throughout January. The latter surge represented the Sixers’ longest home winning streak since a spurt of equal length from the outset of the lockout-shortened 2012 season.
“I don’t feel that there’s any mystery on how I want to grow the program in relation to the style of play,” said Brown, whose group has generated the fourth-best home defensive rating in the Eastern Conference (104.0 points allowed per 100 possessions), and 11th-lowest in the NBA overall. “We had a good month [January] to test drive some of that, and get a reaction from our fans.”
There’s no doubt that, on many levels (home performance included), January will go down as the climax of the season. Playing mostly at The Center, the Sixers broke out in a big way, compiling a 10-5 record for the month.
In addition to its home wins from that juncture of the year, the team turned in several other stand out showings in South Philadelphia over the past six months. Here are some that we thought were worth revisiting…
As far as wins go, there’s always your first. On November 11th, the Sixers trailed Indiana by a point in overtime. Joel Embiid proved to be the difference in the final 55 seconds, sinking a go-ahead, And-1 three-footer.
He capped his 25-point, seven-rebound effort with two more free throws that secured the Sixers’ first victory of the season at The Center.
Let’s now fast-forward to December 18th, when the Sixers squared off at home against Brooklyn. The game went back and forth during regulation, with the Nets seizing a one-point lead at the three-minute mark of the fourth quarter. Embiid answered again, canning a triple to send the Sixers in front for good.
Then, there was January, which, as Brown alluded to, produced multiple signature wins. Among them were:
T.J. McConnell’s buzzer-beater that sunk Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks…
A gritty triumph that snapped the Sixers’ 14-game losing streak to Atlantic Division rival Toronto…
Some late-game heroics from Robert Covington versus Portland…
A miraculous 19-point second-half comeback against the L.A. Clippers…
And, finally, another crazy comeback effort, this time with Sacramento in the house. The Sixers summoned up a 42-point third quarter to power past the Kings.
As the season moved on from January, more home highlights rolled in, including a February triumph over Miami that halted the Heat’s 13-game winning streak, Dario Saric going into take-over mode in March for another narrow win over the Knicks, and a 116-74 rout of Nerlens Noel and the Dallas Mavericks several weeks ago.
The Sixers also managed to beat the Boston Celtics for the first time in 12 tries, doing so on March 19th, 105-99, with Saric helping lead the way (23 pts, 6 reb).
“I think the fans and the city are great,” said Brown, citing the increase in excitement surrounding the team this year. “It’s what I guessed was going to happen when you accepted the position, and gut feel. This is Philadelphia.”
For a basketball lifer like Brown, the last four years have offered plenty of opportunities to soak in and absorb the extent to which the sport, and the franchise he helps steward, is woven into the fabric of the Philadelphia region. Just this past Saturday, he took part in a celebration at the Sixers’ training complex marking the unveiling of a commemorative Wilt Chamberlain statue.
“I pinched myself,” he said. “It’s Wilt Chamberlain.
“Walk out and look at those banners in our Camden practice facility. That’s an amazing collection of history. Our organization’s rich.”
Whether because of community functions, or to chauffeur his son, Sam, to local youth hoops events, Brown has willingly and enthusiastically immersed himself in Philadelphia’s basketball scene. Doubt that Brown gets the area? Check out some of his comments below.
“Let’s go to North Philly and check that out. Let’s go into an Ardmore playground, let’s go into La Salle. Look at the city, feel the city. This place is basketball. I can drive up and see [Villanova’s] Jay Wright, I can go down and see Coach [Fran] Dunphy [Temple]. You can go to the Catholic League Championships in the Palestra. I do all that.”
As Brown nears the end of the fourth season with the Sixers, the ride has so far seemed to reinforce to him the hunch he’s had all along. Philadelphia, as demanding as it can be, boasts an energizing sports spirit, one fueled even more by the growth and development of its teams.
“These fans deserve a lot of credit,” said Brown. “We are beyond grateful for them sticking with us, and we intend on returning the favor in big ways in the upcoming years. I feel comfortable that our position, our foundation in how we want to play basketball is set, and in place.”
Appreciative words from, of all people, a New Englander.
Sizing Up the Pacers (40-40): Operating under the slimmest margins for error, Indiana has used a recent spurt to put itself on the cusp of clinching a playoff berth. With a victory over the Sixers Monday, the Pacers could secure a trip to the post-season for a second straight spring, and sixth time in the last seven years.
A week ago, Indiana was in the midst of a spiral that was responsible for four consecutive losses, and six defeats in the span of seven outings. The lone outlier was a March 26th triumph over the Sixers. The slide certainly seemed as if it would cost the club, at one point this year as many as seven games over .500, a spot in the next phase of the NBA season.
The Pacers, however, have responded with a timely three-game winning streak, and shot back up to seventh-place in the Eastern Conference. In addition to defeating the Sixers, Indiana could also qualify for the playoffs Monday with losses by Chicago and / or Miami, both of which trail the Pacers by a game in the standings.
Under first-year head coach Nate McMillan, four-time All-Star Paul George has turned in the most productive offensive campaign of his career, which began in 2010 when Indiana made him the 10th pick of the draft. The small forward is averaging 23.5 points per game, while shooting 45.8 percent from the field.
Not to be overlooked in the Pacers’ change of fortunes the past few days is that their turnaround has coincided with the return of Lance Stephenson. The somewhat unpredictable guard had logged only 12 outings at the NBA level this season between stints with New Orleans and Minnesota. Indiana signed him to a free agent contract on March 30th, and he’s gone on to average 8.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 3.5 assists off the bench.
From 2010-2014, Stephenson spent the first four seasons of his career with the Pacers, assuming a key role in pushing them to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 and 2014.
Series History: The Sixers and Indiana linked up 15 days ago, with the Pacers delivering a 107-94 March 26th victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Prior to that outcome, both meetings this season between the Eastern Conference foes had gone to overtime. The Sixers suffered a 122-115 loss at Indiana on November 9th, before turning around two days later and knocking off the Pacers 109-105 at The Center.
The Sixers are bidding to beat Indiana twice in the same season for the first time since the 2012-2013 campaign.
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