PHILADELPHIA, PA – Forty times previously this regular season, the 76ers took the floor at The Center, almost always bringing with them an admirable, steely spirit.
It quickly became apparent that these signature sensibilities would once again be put to the test, this time in a match-up marking the team’s final home outing of the campaign.
Despite falling behind by as many as 21 points in the first quarter, the Sixers still managed to summon up enough resilience to make a game out of Monday’s pairing with Indiana.
The Pacers, aiming to creep closer to securing their spot in the playoffs, very much played like a club that didn’t want help. Each time the Sixers threatened, Indiana had an answer, emerging from South Philadelphia with a 120-111 triumph.
With the loss, the Sixers ended up going winless on their four-game homestand. Nevertheless, they finished the 2016-2017 slate with a record of 17-24 at The Center, their best home record of the Brett Brown era.
“You want to look up at the fans, and grab the microphone and really say, ‘Thank you,’” Brown said afterwards.
“You feel the fans, you want to acknowledge them. We believe that there were things that went on this year that I hope they too are excited about.”
Four-time All-Star Paul George ignited Indiana’s strong start, scoring 17 of his game-best 27 points in Monday’s opening period.
In terms of bright spots capable of energizing the Sixers’ fanbase, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot generated a new career-high by tallying 24 points in 36 minutes. He matched a personal-high with four 3-pointers as well.
“Tonight,” said Brown, “you saw [Luwawu-Cabarrot] jump into this thing in a big way against a team that was very desperate to close the deal in relation to them making the playoffs.”
The veteran Pacers, which cranked out 35 points in the first 12 minutes of regulation, got by, in part, by establishing key advantages on the interior. They outrebounded the Sixers by 11 (44-33), outscored their hosts 62-36 in the paint, and turned aside six shots.
The visitors outscored the Sixers 32-17 in points off turnovers, too.
Indiana converted 57.6 percent of its field goal attempts overall, and weathered a potent perimeter performance from the Sixers. Behind a 5 for 7 3-point shooting showing from rookie Alex Poythress (15 pts), the Sixers ended the game with 13 triples.
Midway through Monday’s second quarter, the Sixers found life. After a pair of personal fouls limited Richaun Holmes to just four minutes of action in the first frame, he came back with vengeance. All the second-year big man needed was 30 seconds to deliver determined and-1’s on back-to-back possessions, then slam home a vicious alley-oop dunk (see the ‘Sixers Social’ section a little bit farther down for a visual) on the Sixers’ third straight trip down the floor.
A 3-pointer from Luwawu-Cabarrot moments later capped off a swift 11-0 blitz, and brought the Sixers within seven, 52-45. Their deficit stood at 10, 64-54, at intermission, and grew to 14 midway through the third quarter.
The Sixers charged back within single digits during several stages of the second half, including the 50-second mark of regulation, when Nik Stauskas (15 pts) nailed a 3-pointer to make it a seven-point game. Indiana, as it did throughout the evening, didn’t flinch.
On a typical night, Brown’s post-game news conferences revolve mostly around reviewing and addressing the nitty gritty details of the contest he just lived and breathed. Monday, however, the tone of his eight and a half minute session with reporters was slightly different, and understandably so.
With the Sixers not set to return to The Center until next fall, Brown found himself discussing themes that were bigger picture in nature. The efforts of Luwawu-Cabarrot and Holmes represented such a subplot. The two youngsters again provided the Sixers with quality contributions; however, each prospect remains very much in the early phase of his respective developmental path.
“It’s priceless,” said Brown, when asked Monday about the value of the experience that Luwawu-Cabarrot and Holmes are gaining at this stage of the season. “What I think it does for those guys, led by me, there needs to be an appropriate fear of, ‘Ok, what’s going to happen with free agents? Who are they going to go get for that? Who are they going to draft? How does that affect me?’ That’s real.”
Luwawu-Cabarrot has now reached double-figures in scoring in six consecutive outings, posting a minimum of 18 points in all but one of these tilts.
Holmes, meanwhile, ran his double-digit point streak to a fourth game in a row, finishing with 17. In 25 appearances since the All-Star break, he’s accounted for 13.6 points (on 57.9 percent shooting) and 6.9 rebounds in only 26.6 minutes per game.
While neither Luwawu-Cabarrot nor Holmes have futures that are guaranteed, Brown sees promise on the horizon for both.
“When you taste it like they’ve tasted it, it produces ‘I don’t want to let that go,’” said Brown. “There’s no sense of entitlement, there’s no sense of arrival. They are going to have to fight like hell to hold their spots, and to continue on playing minutes for the team we have next year. That’s just the lay of the land.”
Therefore, the months that lie ahead following Wednesday’s season finale at Madison Square Garden take on that much more importance, not just for Luwawu-Cabarrot and Holmes, but many members of the Sixers’ roster.
“I believe that they will embrace their summer,” Brown said. “The taste I think is just going to be a very sweet taste that they don’t want to let go of.”
When retracing the factors that led to the respective increase in responsibilities for Luwawu-Cabarrot and Holmes alike the past month and a half, a shared catalyst stands out. If not for injuries or playing time limitations to teammates, who knows whether the chance to further showcase potential would have surfaced.
“You always play it out in your head,” said Brown. “I think that if anything, this experience personally that I’ve had here in Philadelphia hardens you. It grounds you to what’s real. It keeps a perspective for me at this stage of my coaching career, where I get so excited about what I do know and see.
“That drowns whatever woe-is-me you might feel from time to time if the team had stayed healthy.”
Monday, Luwawu-Cabarrot and Holmes did their part to keep the outlook optimistic.
In the culmination of his punishing second-quarter flurry, Richaun Holmes used a hard cut, well-timed jump, and exceptional reach to throw down the roughly 45-foot long halfcourt pass from T.J. McConnell for this impressive alley-oop. The connection allowed the Sixers to wipe out a sizable 18-point deficit, and provided a much-needed spark.
The 68th season of professional basketball in the history of the 76ers’ franchise comes to an end Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, where long-time Atlantic Division foe the New York Knicks will serve as hosts. True to the form of any good rivalry, the Sixers and Knicks have gone down to the wire in each of their three previous meetings this season. T.J. McConnell drained a baseline buzzer-beater over Carmelo Anthony January 11th at The Center to send the Sixers to a 98-97 victory. Five weeks later at MSG, Anthony himself drilled a shot in the final seconds to lift the Knicks over the Sixers, 110-109. Most recently, on March 3rd, the Sixers edged New York again, 105-102.