Sports are breathtaking and exciting when something wonderful assumes its more concrete, recognizable form.
That is what the Sixers are, right now.
They are turning into something concrete. Something identifiable. Something real.
For the first time in six years, they’re coming down the stretch with a purpose. They hold the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, and they’re two games out of the No. 4 seed. More significantly, they entered Monday’s games 4 1/2 games away from ninth place.
They should hold there, at least. On paper, they have an easy road home, and, on paper, they’re getting better. They’re trying to incorporate shooting guard Marco Belinelli, whom they signed Feb. 12. They’re trying to sign versatile veteran forward Ersan Ilyasova. That pair would help JJ Redick and Dario Saric further open the floor for all-star center Joel Embiid and guard Ben Simmons.
“There are things now that go on in the final third of the season. You walk that fine line. We’re going OK,” coach Brett Brown said last weekend. “You don’t want to tinker too much.”
During the streak, they won with Embiid and without him. They held onto leads. They came back from huge deficits.
They almost came back Sunday night, too, cutting a 23-point, third-quarter deficit to eight with just under 4 minutes to play in the fourth. They did it with poise and with cunning.
Simmons, the rookie-of-the-year favorite, began the charge late in the third quarter with an offensive rebound, a strong drive to the rim, an alley-oop assist and four free throws.
Dario Saric, who should have won rookie of the year last year, helped fuel it with two three-pointers, both facilitated by Simmons and Embiid drawing extra defenders.
Embiid, who should get MVP votes, got them closest, latest.
It wasn’t enough, but it was compelling entertainment and a promising effort.
It also was the second of back-to-back games. Also, Simmons’ 57th career game. Also, Embiid’s 78th. It’s not only their first “Final Third,” it’s their first second half. Embiid played just 31 games last season, which ended for him in late January.
They’d beaten the Magic by shooting 51.9 percent and holding the Magic to 45.2 percent. They shot 36.0 percent in Washington. The Wizards hit 54.4 percent.
The Sixers’ legs were dead.
It was a lesson. There are more to be learned.
“You take some guys who have only played one year. Or two years,” Brown said. “The youth thing can be used accurately for a moment, then it gets to a stage when you just have to be better.”
They’re at that stage. They have to be better. Smarter.
With 33 seconds to play in the third, Simmons shot a fall-away, 15-foot jumper. He shoots less than 32 percent on those shots.
Embiid powered in a layup and was fouled by Marcin Gortat with 3:48 to play, and his free throw cut it to 100-92. But shortly before that, Embiid had turned the ball over in the post, then turned it over again with an illegal screen. Shortly after his three-point play over Gortat, Embiid missed a jump shot, flopped trying to draw a foul in transition and watched Gortat sprint downcourt for a layup and a 13-point lead.
That was that.
Another loss, true; but another step forward, too.
“I am so proud of the identity that we have,” Brown said. “It’s not like we come into this thing and we’re like, ‘Who are we?’ ”
They’re a team that runs, passes and defends.
“We play fast; we’re fourth [in pace rating]. We pass the ball. We’re first [in passes per game; third in assists],” Brown said. “This whole world is driven to me through defense. We’re fourth [in defensive rating].
“There’s no mystery as to how I want to coach this team or how I want to play, especially in this city.”
What about the second season? What about the playoffs?
“There’s a whole different thing around the corner,” Brown admitted. “Beating somebody four times when you play them seven times in that dense of a period – it’s different from going to Washington, then to Miami [where they play Tuesday night]. Your greatest weakness gets exposed. There are no secrets when you’re playing Game 5.”
And his weaknesses?
“I’m not telling you,” said Brown, chronic truth-teller. Then, delightfully, he did. He always does.
“I know completely how I would guard us,” he said, and brought up his two cornerstones, and the challenges he faces over the final 24 games. “What are they going to do to double-team [Embiid]? How are you going to space? You start learning how people are guarding Ben Simmons [pantomimes a jump shot]. You can project out on what that’s going to look like.”
Brown was part of a Spurs staff that won titles with teams double-teaming Tim Duncan and daring Tony Parker to shoot.
“There are some lessons to be learned in those two areas, with Ben and Joel, in those two areas especially,” Brown said. “How can you address that now? What’s it going to look like?”
Hard to tell.
That’s why we keep watching.