OKLAHOMA CITY – Caught up as we are in their impressive back-to-back wins, there is something about the 76ers that has folks uneasy about Sunday evening’s date with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Sixers (24-21) have a knack for playing like an AAU team, blowing big leads only to lose in head-scratching fashion.
Eight of their losses have come when they’ve led by 11 points or more. The latest giveaway came after having a 15-point third-quarter lead at the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday.
But it’s hard to forget about their holding a commanding 22-point third quarter advantage over the Boston Celtics and still losing on Jan. 11 in London. There was the 24-point halftime cushion in a loss to the Golden State Warriors at the Wells Fargo Center on Nov. 18. And what about the 22-point third-quarter cushion in a Dec. 21 home loss to the Toronto Raptors?
“Teams make their run and sometimes we just kind of fold and turn the ball over and stop guarding,” T.J. McConnell said. “Any team in the NBA, they’ll get back into it.”
That’s why the Sixers were elated to leave Texas with a 97-78 victory over the San Antonio Spurs Friday night. The visitors didn’t crumble after building a 25-point cushion with 1 minute, 17 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
On this night, despite averaging a league-worst 17.3 turnovers a game, the Sixers committed a season-low 10. They also finished with 20 fouls, which is 3.4 below their league-worst average.
“I think [turnovers and fouls] are the two major things that connect the dots to loss of leads,” coach Brett Brown said. “They lead to threes. So you cannot turn it over. … There’s a lot of threes generated through the turnovers, and just generally trying not to push them in the bonus until as late as possible [by fouling]. I thought our guys [against the Spurs] were really good at that.”
The turnovers have been the biggest killer. Rookie point guard Ben Simmons and all-star center Joel Embiid are tied for fifth in the league in turnovers at 4.0 per game. Embiid did show improvement Friday, finishing with zero turnovers for the second time this season. Meanwhile, Simmons turned the ball over three times.
But they are not the only ones guilty of giveaways.
Rarely does a game go by that Robert Covington, Dario Saric and McConnell don’t get involved in the act.
At times, especially late in games, the Sixers play undisciplined basketball. They attempt passes that are too high. They also try to force-feed passes over the middle. The passes over the top are often picked off. The low ones usually end up near ankles and shins and eventually out of bounds. Oh, and the cross-court passes are also an adventure.
“I feel like for us, some of us, we go into the lane without a plan of attack,” McConnell said. “Then when we get stuck, that’s when we turn it over. So it’s about going in there, knowing what you want to do when you go in there and executing it.”
The Sixers will tell you that they work on execution and decision making at practice. They go over their miscues during film study. Brown shows his players examples of good and bad passes.
However, their style of play is a major contributor to their inability to hold leads.
Playing at a fast pace, they’re bound to turn the ball over. That’s why some will argue that it doesn’t make sense to play with pace. That’s because there’s a belief teams shouldn’t play fast when they have an imposing center like Embiid. The Sixers would be better off slowing it down and having him involved in every offensive possession.
The Sixers have tried to change up the tempo late in games. But so used to pushing tempo, the players appear out of their element playing a different way.
With a lead, they should run time off the clock and feed the ball to Embiid. Instead, the Sixers usually continue to push tempo and settle for three-pointers early in the shot clock. That usually aids in an opponent’s comeback.
But that hasn’t swayed Brown.
“We continue to try to help our group not turn it over as much,” he said, “while still playing a style of play I want to play.”
That’s why he instructs his players to come to jump stops and make decisions instead on leaving their feet in traffic. Brown talks about half-court defense and middle pick-and-roll and sideline pick-and-roll defenses. The coach also goes over all of the things the Sixers did wrong while crumbling in the fourth quarter.
On Tuesday, he talked to them about the lack of a late switch on Grizzlies center Marc Gasol’s late go-ahead three-pointer. Brown also worked with Covington and Trevor Booker about their transition-defense confusion.
But Brown will tell you players have to aid in their rescue, especially when it comes to turnovers.
“Coach is right,” McConnell said. “He can only do so much from the sideline. He can’t pass the ball for us. We’ve just got to take care of it better.”