Frustration Sets In As Sixers Fall to Celtics

The Sixers made another second-half comeback, but ended up coming up short in a 120-105 loss to the Celtics.

Nerlens Noel came off the bench to score 16 points and collect 9 rebounds in the 76ers 113-88 loss to the Charlotte Hornets | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Sixers’ center Nerlens Noel fouled out in the Sixers’ 120-105 loss to the Celtics | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

For the Sixers, last night’s game against the Celtics followed a familiar path: dig a big hole in the first quarter, fight their way back, have a chance late in the game, then get out-executed down the stretch in another lopsided loss.

A 16-2 first quarter run gave the Celtics command of the game early. The Sixers recovered with strong play in the middle periods, eventually pulling to within 91-87 with 9 minutes remaining.

That hope was brief, as many Sixers’ comebacks have been in this long and difficult season. After the Sixers won a jump ball, point guard Ish Smith took a three-pointer with 20 seconds remaining on the shot clock. The ball went halfway down, then popped out.

Carl Landry, who finished the night with a team-high 26 points and 8 rebounds in 25 minutes off the bench, pulled down a tough offensive rebound in traffic, which set up another Ish Smith jumper, this time a contested pull-up jump shot with 19 seconds left on the shot block. That one rimmed out as well.

That was the last time the Sixers would really threaten, as the Celtics then ripped off a 16-6 run to put the game away, a 4th quarter run which I feel like I’ve seen at least two-dozen times so far this season, even if the names on the backs of the opponents jerseys change from time to time.

Marcus Smart led the Celtics with 6 points during the run, including a three-pointer from a player shooting 26.5 percent from deep this season. The Sixers shot just 3-9 from the field, including 0-3 from three-point range, during that pivotal stretch of play.

“I’m going to kick myself tonight because that three-ball and that pull-up jump shot went in and out on me,” Ish Smith said after the game. “That could have been the difference. It happens.

“That’s a good team. They needed a win and they were desperate. We played some good basketball, but it just wasn’t enough tonight,” Smith continued.

It does happen, although it seems to happen quite a bit for Smith. Smith has attempted 254 pull-up jump shots since joining the Sixers, shooting just 34.3 percent on such attempts in the process. The next highest quantity attempted is Isaiah Canaan, who has 98 pull-up shots in that span.

While Canaan is only shooting 33.7 percent on pull-up shots himself, the vast majority of those are from three-point range. 71.4 percent of Canaan’s pull-up jump shots are from distance, whereas only 23.6 percent of Smith’s are. Because of that, Canaan’s efficiency, when adjusting for the extra value of a three-point shot, is significantly higher, with a 45.9 percent effective field goal percentage for Canaan on pull-up jump shots, compared to just 37.8 percent for Smith.

Ish Smith25437.8%
Isaiah Canaan9845.9%
T.J. McConnell9348.9%
(The Sixers' leaders in pull-up jump shots since the December 24th acquisition of Ish Smith. eFG% is field goal percentage adjusted for the extra value of three-point shots)

In fact, since December 24th, Smith’s attempted the 19th most pull-up jump shots in the NBA. These kind of shots are typically reserved for the superstars of the league: Chris Paul, James Harden, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, and so on fill this list.

Of the 18 people who have attempted as many pull-up jump shots as Smith over that period of time, 17 of them have a better effective field goal percentage than Smith. Only John Wall‘s 37 percent effective field goal percentage is lower.

At times, those shots are necessary. Many of those jump shots are late-clock situations after the team plays hot potato with the basketball for the majority of the shot clock. The problem isn’t just that Smith takes a lot of bad shots, it’s that, at times, the team is so void of half-court offensive talent that it *needs* an inefficient jump shooter to shoot a lot of inefficient jump shots.

But then there are times like last night. With 19+ seconds left on the shot clock, the Sixers had time to execute. Smith got caught up in the moment, and did what he does a little bit too frequently: settle. Regardless of whether those shots almost went in or not, the expected value on those shots is terrible. Missing them hurt.

That confidence Smith has is both a blessing and a curse. It causes him to feel like those shots will go in, no matter the previous results. But it also provides him with a cool, calm, focused demeanor in the locker room that is undoubtedly stabilizing for such a young team.

Smith talked about going out and winning to finish off the season. Not just a game, not just a couple games, but every game. Every quarter of every game, in fact. “Win ’em all. That’s the objective that we have to do. It starts with Indiana,” Smith said.

It was, without a doubt, bravado that has no chance of being backed up. Nor would anyone, Smith included, expect him to. But it’s a sense of confidence this young team, caught up in one the lowest points in one of the worst seasons in NBA history, needs. The sky isn’t falling, they just need to execute for four quarters of a game, after all.

37 year old Elton Brand spoke a similar message. He spoke of communication, opponent tendencies, and schemes that these young Sixers may not have experienced enough to know first-hand. He spoke of going out and fighting every game, to finish the season strong, for confidence heading into next season.

Confidence that seems almost impossible to have in the moment for a team that’s lost 18 of their past 19 games. While both Brand and Smith spoke of a message oft-repeated in locker rooms of struggling teams, they spoke with a calming confidence that couldn’t help but have an impact on kids so young an inexperienced.

Then there was Nerlens Noel, sitting at his locker room, head looking down at the ground,  waiting for the inevitable throng of reporters that would come his way.

Head coach Brett Brown has often said that Noel has endured the most in this rebuild — in terms of giving up his natural position to accommodate Jahlil Okafor at center, in having to go through a season on the bench while recovering from injury, in being one of the few on the team who has gone through the sheer volume of losing he has.

Noel suffers in another way in that he faces the media virtually every day. Not a post game goes by, and rarely even a practice, where Noel’s thoughts aren’t requested by the media. In much the same way Brown has had to be the public face of the franchise, Noel has as well.

And, for the most part, Noel is good at it. Thoughtful and articulate, yet emotional and, at times, a bit too honest, Noel stands in front of the cameras regardless of the outcome or his quality of play.

Last night was a tough one for Noel in both of those areas.

This loss was a difficult one. it was difficult because the manner in which they lost, with the huge first-quarter deficit, the comeback, then falling short late. It was even more difficult considering the volume of losing they’ve endured of late. Regardless of how often these guys have lost over the past few years, losing 18 of 19 is stressful.

And it was difficult because Noel struggled. He struggled with the size and strength of Jared Sullinger and Amir Johnson. He struggled from the field, shooting just two-for-eight in the game. And he struggled to stay on the court, being disqualified by fouling out for the first time this year, including some questionable calls that Noel clearly didn’t agree with, most notably the final two fouls he picked up midway through the fourth quarter which caused him to miss the last 4 minutes, 49 seconds of the game.

With Noel sitting there, clearly upset, in his locker stall, you were left unsure exactly what it was to have him uncharacteristically down. The losing? His play? Fouling out?

Noel didn’t speak much after the loss, but with what little he did say, it was clear the losing was at least partially to blame.

“Losing’s hard. Period,” Noel said. “It’s not easy to deal with. It is what it is.”

It’s hard to say how much long-term impact losing at such a magnitude will have on young players such as Noel. The return of Joel Embiid, some lottery lock, a couple of shrewd free agent signings in the chaos of the upcoming free agency period, all could cause a turnaround, both in play and in attitude, quicker than some might expect. That upside, the reason the Sixers embarked on this process, is still there.

We, as a society, and especially as a media collective, tend to be hyper-focused on the here now. It can be true that losing is getting to them, and also true that they can overcome it. That having an impact on their psyche now doesn’t guarantee it will impact them five years from now. Everything is not always broken forever.

There is a chance that the team could win 25-30 games next year, be viewed as a team on the rise, and this dark time of Sixers basketball viewed as a character building period rather than the character destroying one most presume.

Pressure makes diamonds, as one infamous former 76ers center once said.

But the team is as down as it’s been in quite some time. Regardless of whether you generally believe in what the team is doing, whether you’ve bought into the necessity of hitting big in the draft and the deal with the devil that comes along with acquiring those ping pong balls, it wasn’t supposed to be *this* bad.

They weren’t designed to start 1-30. With 12 games remaining, they weren’t supposed to be in jeopardy of tying the NBA’s all-time mark for worst record in an 82-game season, especially not after the team went 6-8 in their first 14 games after acquiring Smith, seemingly restoring some level of respectability that’s long since passed.

There’s losing, and then there’s playing stretches of 18, 19, 20 games with little competitive basketball being played. For their sake, I hope they don’t feel the pressure that will come if they fail to pick up a win in the next week and head into the final stretch of games staring infamy in the face.

Much like the start of the season, this team needs a win in the worst way. It needs some players to get healthy. It needs somebody to go on a hot streak and will them to an unexpected win they can feel proud of.

But, from an outsiders perspective, the losing does seem to be getting to them. You can see it in their inconsistent effort, in the lapses in their attention to detail, and you can see it in their body language in the locker room.

More than anything, the team needs something to feel good about. Something to give the bravado of their charismatic point guard some weight behind it, because right now the pressure seems to be caving in on them.

Injury Update:

Sixers’ center Joel Embiid is back in Qatar for another session of rehabilitation at the world-renowned Aspetar orthopedic and sports medicine hospital. He is accompanied by David Martin, who was with Embiid during his initial visit to the facility last month.

According to Sixers head coach Brett Brown, the visit is representative of Embiid progressing well in his rehab.

Brown also said that Richaun Holmes (Achilles) and Robert Covington (concussion) could both return Wednesday at Denver.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.