SALT LAKE CITY, UT – And in the fourth week of the NBA’s 2017-2018 regular season, the schedule makers said to the 76ers, “Go West.”
So it shall be, beginning Tuesday, when Brett Brown and Co. visit the Utah Jazz (9:00 PM EST; NBC Sports Philadelphia, 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network) in the opener of their season-long road trip.
Recently, the Sixers have been playing top-flight basketball, regardless of location. Tuesday at Vivint Smart Home Arena, the franchise will have a shot at its first five-game winning streak of the Brown era. The last time the Sixers strung together that many victories in succession was during a six-game run at the outset of the lockout-shortened 2011-2012 campaign.
JJ Redick said Tuesday, “I think we need to get greedy, and try to get as many wins as possible.”
The veteran sharpshooter knows the upcoming trek will present challenges for the young Sixers, which he believes still have much to learn. Nonetheless, Redick has been encouraged by their progress.
“If you look at where we were nine games ago when we started in Washington to where we are now, I think we’ve made a lot of improvement,” said Redick. “Hopefully, at the end of this trip, we continue to take steps forward. That should be a goal, but obviously we want to win, too.”
Over the next 10 days, the Sixers will face five different foes from the West – first the Jazz, followed by the Sacramento Kings (Thursday), Golden State Warriors (Saturday), Clippers (Monday), and Los Angeles Lakers (Wednesday). They’ll do so with a fresh set of goals in mind.
Sticking with his tried and true philosophical practice of breaking up the 82-game schedule into clumps of 10 (he started a game early this time because the Sixers, which have played nine times, were idle the last three days), Brown spent the weekend looking for areas where his squad could shore things up.
“It’s not going to be a mystery to the team of why we’re doing it,” he said.
And it wasn’t Monday, during the Sixers’ practice session in Camden.
“Most is just cleaning up stuff defensively – middle pick-and-rolls, side pick-and-rolls, and transition defense,” said Redick, the hero from Friday’s 121-110 triumph over the Indiana Pacers.
He added that the Sixers are also continuing to work on fine-tuning offensive execution and ball movement, the latter of which he considers to be a “big reason we’ve been able to have success these last few games.”
To date, the Sixers pace the NBA with an average of 355.8 passes made per game. With 25.4 assists per 100 possessions, and a 65.1 assist percentage, they trail only the Golden State Warriors in both statistical categories (29.9, and 69.6, respectively).
On the flip side, the Sixers have manufactured a respectable 103.8 defensive rating for the year. The figure has been even better – 102.8 – amidst their winning streak.
Per Ben Simmons, Brown wants the team to tighten up its calls, and navigating screens.
“Communication’s a big deal with us,” said the Australian rookie. “I think if we keep that up, our defense is going to be a lot better.”
For one night, the Sixers will be without elite defensive stopper Joel Embiid. Tuesday’s game has been earmarked as a day of rest for the 7-footer since before the season began. In his absence, the Sixers will turn to members of a reserve contingent who have been productive when summoned this year.
Jerryd Bayless will also be missing in action, due to a left wrist contusion.
But, as the Sixers have shown lately, near or far, South Philly or South Texas, they’ve managed to handle a multitude of circumstances that has come their way.
“We need to win,” Simmons said Monday, hours before the Sixers hopped a flight for their trip. “That’s our goal going into it. We’ve got some tough teams to play, so it’s going to be a good test.”
The Utah Jazz (5-5) may not have All-Star swing man Gordon Hayward anymore, but they do still boast the gargantuan Rudy Gobert. The 7-foot-1, 245-pound center has used his pterodactyl-ish 8-foot wingspan to cement his status as one of the NBA’s premiere shot blockers in recent years. A season ago, he topped the league in swats, and earned All-NBA 2nd-Team honors.
“He’s an elite defensive player, so you better drive to dunk, you better drive to drop it off to a big, you better drive where you can keep the ball alive along the baseline, you better drive to come to jump-stops, and look around and find teammates and be under control,” said Brett Brown. “Anything short of that ends up being one of the elite NBA defensive centers just swallowing it up. That is a real presence in the paint, and we’ve talked a lot about it.”
• Video: NBC Sports Philadelphia / NBC Sports app
• Audio: 97.5 FM The Fanatic / Sixers Radio Network