LONDON – The 76ers are faced with a tough balance.
They’re here in England to have fun and to build on their international brand and the NBA’s global popularity as a whole. At the same time, their NBA London matchup against the Boston Celtics on Thursday at The 02 Arena (3 p.m. EST) is the first of three key games against not only the Atlantic Division’s – but the Eastern Conference’s – two best teams.
So this might not be the best time to be on this side of the pond for brand-building. This trip, and the obligations that come with it, could be viewed as distractions for a Sixers squad that has won four straight games.
“We are going to make this a positive,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said before Tuesday’s two-hour practice at CitySport. “We are going to enjoy each other’s company.”
The Sixers (19-19) arrived here around 9 a.m. local time Tuesday after their overnight flight was delayed. They were accompanied by family members and significant others. The team arrived at its hotel around 10:30 a.m.
Dario Saric, Robert Covington, T.J. McConnell and Trevor Booker headed over to CitySport to teach basketball fundamentals to 60 kids at a Jr. NBA Clinic from 3:15 to 4 p.m. They were joined by players from the Crystal Palace soccer team, which Sixers owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer also own. Thirty minutes later, the four Sixers joined their teammates for a media availability, where for about a half-hour they talked about everything imaginable to reporters from all over Europe. Then after warming up, the Sixers had their closed practice.
Covington and Markelle Fultz also participated in a meet-and-greet with United Kingdom fans, sponsored by Tissot watches.
“We are going to treat this in a way that will produce a real enjoyable experience, with the bottom line we are coming here to win a game,” Brown said. “So somewhere out there, there’s a little bit of a juggling act.
“But I think I got it. Look forward to being here with our team and the organization.”
After facing the conference-leading Celtics (33-10), the Sixers will entertain its second-best squad, the Toronto Raptors, at 1 p.m. Monday at the Wells Fargo Center. Then, they’ll travel to Boston on Jan. 18 before returning home to face the conference’s sixth-place team, the Milwaukee Bucks, two days later.
The conference’s top eight teams, following the 82-game regular season, will advance to the postseason. The Sixers are a game behind the Indiana Pacers for the eighth spot with 44 games remaining. So they’ll have time secure an expected postseason appearance. However, they don’t want to get too far behind in the coming days with poor showings.
Plus, the Sixers haven’t exactly thrived under the spotlight.
Not to the same extent as NBA London, but the Sixers were in the spotlight leading up to a Nov. 9 road matchup with the Sacramento Kings. It didn’t work out well for them — a 109-108 loss.
Several players lacked their normal focus as ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated were among the media outlets on hand. During pregame, the scene inside the locker room had more of a post-practice vibe than of a typical game day.
Then on Dec. 15, ESPN covered the Sixers from morning to night across all ESPN properties in what was another distraction. The coverage concluded with a triple-overtime loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. That was the first setback of what turned out to be the Sixers’ season-worst five-game losing streak. Now, they did end their skid with a nationally televised Christmas Day victory over the New York Knicks.
“There’s a lot of attention [paid to] this game. A lot of attention,” Saric said of the NBA London matchup. “So many people even the soccer team [Crystal Palace], the soccer club, everybody here is [excited] like a kid. And I think even to the NBA in the states, I think this game is very important.
“They gave us all week with [no games] to prepare for this game. I hope mentally we will be ready for this game.”
The Croatian player, who has plenty of international experience, isn’t fazed by the extra attention. Nor is he in awe of playing in London. He hopes that won’t be a problem for some of his young teammates on Thursday.
“Hopefully, we will present everything on the court,” Saric said. “I saw the coaches. They pay a lot of attention to these games. I hope at the end of the day, we will figure it out and come on the court and play 100 percent and win the game.”