Fans of an 0-14 basketball team have become accustomed to all kinds of losses.
Out-classed, outworked, out-hustled and out-executed, losses have come in many different flavors for this 76ers team.
Last night’s 96-91 loss to the Miami Heat was a new kind of disappointment for Sixers fans.
It’s not that many expected a Sixers win heading into the game. The Sixers were on their second game in two days, having played in Charlotte the night before, where the Heat were resting. The Heat are clearly the more talented team that presented some matchup problems for the Sixers: Hassan Whiteside’s elite shot blocking against Jahlil Okafor‘s post scoring, Chris Bosh’s ability to pull Nerlens Noel away from the hoop, and dribble penetration from Goran Dragic that would put pressure on the Sixers’ guards.
Yet there the Sixers were, holding a 10 point lead with 8 minutes left in the game.
What unfolded next was tough to take for Sixers fans desperate for a win.
Miami’s run started when Sixers head coach Brett Brown decided to start intentionally fouling Heat center Hassan Whiteside. Whiteside entered the game shooting 52% from the free throw.
The decision backfired on Brown, as Whiteside made 4 out of 6 free throws during that crucial stretch.
From a numbers perspective, few would recommend intentionally fouling in that situation, even if Whiteside had shot converted at that 52% average. 50% free throw shooting would come out to 1 point per trip down the floor, and the Sixers defense had been holding Miami in check, with the Heat shooting just 42.6% from the field and averaging just 0.935 points per possessions up to that point in the game.
Beyond the numbers, the strategy slowed the game down and increased the number of possessions in the game, something that a team on the wrong end of the talent deficit that’s trying to hold a lead usually doesn’t want to do.
Instead, Whiteside averaged 1.5 points per possession down the floor and cut the lead from 10 to 6 in only 28 seconds of play.
The one saving grace to the strategy was that Erik Spoelstra ended up taking Whiteside out of the game for the final 6:28 of play, although I’m not sure this was because of the Hack-a-Whiteside strategy or just a desire to get star big man Chris Bosh back in the game and put a small-ball lineup around him. It’s also entirely possible that Spoelstra intended to bring Whiteside back, but didn’t want to mess with the run the Heat were on at the time.
While the Hack-a-Whiteside strategy may have ignited Miami’s run, and is an easy strategy to question in this analytics landscape, the primary reason the Sixers gave up their double-digit lead was because of offensive futility down the stretch.
After Nerlens Noel’s dunk with 7:13 left pushed the Sixers lead back to double-figures, the Sixers shot just 1-12 from the field the remainder of the game, with the only basket coming from a garbage time bucket by Robert Covington with 3 seconds remaining.
The spacing was poor, the ball movement stagnant, the shot selection questionable. When good looks at the basket were generated, they were missed, as the Sixers went 0-6 from three point range during the dry spell, including 0-3 from Canaan, whose 9 point third quarter, and 22 point game, were key reasons the Sixers had built they lead they did.
Any one of those missed three pointers had the chance to stem the tide and salvage an encouraging win for Brett Brown’s young team. Instead, they once again stand on the doorsteps of infamy.
That’s not to say there weren’t positives to take away from the game, especially after the previous debacles against Charlotte and Indiana.
Nerlens Noel looked much more like the impact defender the team needs. Robert Covington broke out of his season-long shooting slump to drop 21 points on 6-11 shooting from the field. Isaiah Canaan was a huge spark off the bench.
Perhaps most importantly, the team defense, as a whole, was worlds better than what we’ve seen of late, and perhaps the best we’ve seen for a full 48 minutes this year. The rotations were crisper, players were playing the passing lanes, shots were challenged, and the energy level was reminiscent of last year’s team.
But here the Sixers are, their 24th loss in a row, 14th straight to start the season. They’re 2 games away from tying the all-time record for 26 losses in a row and 4 away from tying the all-time record for 18 straight to start a season. For a team, and a fan base, weary of making history, last night was a golden opportunity that they let slip away.
Odds and Ends:
* As previously mentioned, Robert Covington breaking out of his season-long shooting slump was huge. His ability to get to the free throw line these past two games — 7 free throw attempts in each game, and a 41.7% free throw rate on the season — could be a huge addition to his game, and make him a highly-efficient offensive player when his jumper returns to form.
* Isaiah Canaan‘s been streaky of late, as he went 3 straight games without making more than 1 three pointer. But he was on fire last night, including a bunch of high-degree-of-difficulty makes with the shot clock winding down.
* Richaun Holmes, who had been out with a hamstring injury, was eligible to play, but did not receive any time.
* Jerami Grant, who had been pretty consistent of late, struggled against Miami, going 0-7 from the field, including 0-2 from three point range. He’s now shooting 16% (4-25) from three on the season.
* Jahlil Okafor really struggled at times against Miami’s front court, which leads the league in blocks per game. Okafor shot just 8-20 from the field for his 16 points and had his shot blocked 5 times. Still, he ended up with 11 rebounds (9 defensive) and 3 blocked shots of his own, which is nice to see him contribute even when he’s struggling offensively.
* Brett Brown said before the Charlotte game that his starting lineup would be dictated by matchup. Miami runs a more conventional two big man lineup, albeit with a power forward in Chris Bosh with three point range, so Brown once again started Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel together.