NEW YORK, NY – Inside the Madison Square Garden visitors’ locker room Wednesday, before the 76ers’ 82nd and final outing of the season, there was a sentiment that the team should simply go out and enjoy itself, having one last chance to play together.
The group’s effort in a hard-fought, evenly-played match-up in New York reflected that attitude. A season-ending victory, however, was not to be.
Maurice Ndor sunk a step-back 15-footer in the lane with 18 seconds to go, and Nik Stauskas misfired on a potential game-winning 3-point attempt at the horn, allowing the Knicks to escape with a 114-113 triumph.
The loss resulted in the Sixers concluding the 2016-2017 campaign with a 28-54 record. Their .341 winning percentage ended up being fourth-lowest in the NBA, behind Brooklyn, Phoenix, and the Los Angeles Lakers.
“They fight,” Brett Brown said about his team. Its 18-win improvement represents the second-largest year-over-year bump in franchise history, and the NBA’s biggest this season.
“I thought our guys played. They really fought to the end. I think that has been the characteristic that has most stood out. Despite trades and injuries, I like what our guys do. They play with a genuine spirit.”
That the Sixers and New York scrapped their way to the wire was nothing new, at least in the context of this year’s iteration of the long-standing Atlantic Division rivalry. Wednesday was the third time in four meetings that the final margin was determined by a single point. The entire season series was decided by a total of six points.
In the absence of Dario Saric, who was held out Wednesday for precautionary reasons stemming from left heel soreness, Justin Anderson helped fill the void. The second-year swing man was a potent presence throughout the evening, racking up a career-best 26 points (9-10 fg, 3-4 3fg).
Alex Poythress contributed to the Sixers’ cause as well. Making his first professional start, the forward, who was added to the roster as a free agent just 10 days ago, established a career-high in scoring for a second straight game. He tallied 18 points, and delivered a pair of go-ahead baskets in the closing three minutes of regulation.
Carmelo Anthony elected to play Wednesday, finishing with 17 points. Justin Holiday emerged one of New York’s most important contributors. The back-up guard came alive down the stretch, generating 14 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter.
Holiday’s 3-pointer with 39.3 seconds left sent the Knicks ahead, 112-110. Stauskas answered with a triple of his own at the 31.1-second mark. He wasn’t able to come up with another after Poythress won a jump tap with 5.8 seconds on the clock.
“As soon as it left my hands, I knew it wasn’t going in,” Stauskas said of his 25-foot heave from the wing. “You can’t really get a better look, but the shot didn’t drop.”
The Sixers led by as many as seven points in the fourth, which experienced four ties and four lead changes.
While Wednesday’s outcome left the Sixers with an immediate sense of disappointment, a deep breath and long-view perspective would be enough for any member of the club to see the big picture. Although he was at the finish line of a lengthy, winding marathon, Brown’s optimism following Wednesday’s loss was strong.
“You are starting to see the pieces and the players,” said Brown, when asked about the direction the Sixers are headed. “It is all about the players, and how they fit the style of our play. This is our first summer in our [practice facility]. I think that the spirit of the group is going to jumpstart a very productive summer.”
There’s a distinct feel to season finales, regardless of team or sport. In the most obvious of ways, these games bring with them a sense of closure. They’re also accompanied by strange, underlying vibes as well.
Stauskas, a few hours prior to Wednesday’s tip-off, captured the essence of this dynamic pretty accurately, saying, “It’s just a little strange, because the reality of it most times is this team is never going to be this team again.
The draft, free agency, and trades all combine to create that type of effect.
“There’s going to be guys missing, there’s going to be new additions, so it’s a little bit sad knowing it’s the end of the road for a long year,” Stauskas continued. “At the same time, it’s an opportunity for us to go out and enjoy the last game together.”
And so the Sixers did. Anderson and Poythress provided the team with arguably its two most productive stat lines Wednesday, but several other showings were worth noting as well.
Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Shawn Long both dealt with foul trouble, yet still managed to make an impact. Luwawu-Cabarrot registered 14 points, closing an auspicious rookie season with a seventh double-digit scoring outing in a row. Long, meanwhile, posted eight points and nine rebounds in 17 minutes.
Thirty-two year old Tiago Splitter went for 12 points, his highest-scoring regular season output since March of 2015. The veteran center returned to action on the heels of a 14-month layoff two weeks ago, and nailed a jump hook Wednesday to nudge the Sixers ahead, 110-109, with 54 seconds remaining.
The Sixers’ collective performance at The Garden was consistent with the qualities they displayed throughout the season. There was grit, there was resilience, and there was hustle.
“I think this team overcame adversity a lot, kind of the way we fought this year is something to be proud of,” said T.J. McConnell, who notched four points and eight assists in a purposefully-managed 18 minutes. “The injury bug hit us, which I think is a bit unfair, but we didn’t make excuses for ourselves. We continued to play hard, and that’s kind of what our identity was.”
On multiple occasions throughout the year, Brown expressed affection for the batch of players he was assigned to coach in his fourth go-round with the Sixers. The team’s ability to make progress while rarely showing backdown was a big reason why.
“No matter who came in, the group rolled along, and for that reason, I respect them,” said Brown. “I like them, but I really respect them. They never skipped days. They come in and they look at you, and you look back at them – it could be game 50, it could be game 80. They take shootarounds seriously, they take film sessions seriously, and I think the environment that we have created is probably the thing I feel most proud of with my coaching staff, that there is a template, there’s a system of how we work.
“The bottom line is these guys worked, they really worked. And for that effort, they improved individually. Every single one of them have had levels, and sometimes massive levels, of improvement.”
Even with Wednesday’s stinging loss fresh, Brown’s tone was upbeat, his focus forward. Now more than ever, his outlook appears to be justified.
“All over the place,” he said, “you go into the summer with tremendous hope.”
The Sixers were live indeed Wednesday, especially Justin Anderson, the feisty, hard-charging small forward. Of Anderson’s career-high tying nine field goals, six came on drives to the basket. Below, check out one of his highlight-worthy attacks on the rim.
The 68th season in franchise history might now be in the books for the Sixers, but there are plenty of relevant dates on the horizon, two of which will pass before the week is out. Thursday, Brett Brown will meet individually with players for end-of-year exit interviews, then address the media one final time on Friday.
In May, the NBA’s annual draft combine will be held in Chicago from the 9th through 14th. The lottery then returns to New York City May 16th. Also in May, the Sixers, along with other teams throughout the league, will begin conducting prospect workouts in preparation for the draft, scheduled for June 22nd.