When the Sixers dropped to 0-3 this season with a home loss to the Spurs, head coach Doc Rivers said the team was “not ready to win yet.”
He also noted that P.J. Tucker sent a loud postgame message in the locker room about wins not being handed out in the NBA.
The complexion of the Sixers’ season has shifted pleasantly in the two months since that night. They’ve won five consecutive games at Wells Fargo Center and are 17-12 following Monday’s overtime victory over the Raptors.
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“This is a game that earlier in the year, we lose,” Rivers said, “because we just weren’t ready. … But we just hung in there enough. James (Harden) said it great afterwards: He said, ‘We just have a winning attitude,’ and we won the game.”
A few nights after that defeat to San Antonio, the Sixers hit another low point, falling to 1-4 in Toronto. The Raptors’ offense was often unbothered and the Sixers’ transition defense was woeful.
It made no sense to ignore the obvious problems or pretend the Sixers were one or two minor tweaks away from an acceptable standard.
“I think this group is brutally honest with each other — what we need from certain guys ... and what we need as a team to be successful,” Georges Niang said Sunday. “So obviously losing in Toronto was not a great feeling, but you have to go through stuff like that to eventually reach the top. And I think we’ve had multiple conversations and multiple practices where I don’t want to say guys have been called out, but (we’ve) addressed what we need from everybody to be successful, and I think we’re kind of hitting our stride with that right now.”
An honest review of Monday’s win would cover the Sixers’ struggles to score in the second half and a disappointing final minute of regulation that included three missed jumpers by Joel Embiid.
Every victory doesn’t need to be a masterpiece, though.
“Even when it’s ugly, it still counts,” said Embiid, who had 28 points on 6-for-16 shooting and 11 rebounds. “We were up a lot the whole night and they made that run at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth. But we reacted. That’s what we’ve been working on — to stay calm and just keep playing.
“We know teams are going to make runs. Last game against Golden State, they came out hot. We didn’t go crazy; we stayed composed and we knew what we had to do to come back and win the game. And tonight, although we were up big for most of the night, when they took that lead, we did a great job.”
In overtime, the Sixers faced another challenge in the composure department. The team thought it held a 107-101 lead thanks to Tobias Harris’ second straight corner three-pointer, but the officials reviewed the play, called an offensive foul on Tucker, and made it a one-possession game again.
Even with that shot erased, Harris scored 21 points and made 5 of his 7 threes. He’s at a career best 42.0 percent from long range. On catch-and-shoot threes, he’s at 41.6 percent and has bumped his volume up to 4.8 attempts per game.
“It’s just staying ready,” Harris said of his outlook. “And I know that if you threw me out there two years ago, I wouldn’t be able to get going. That wasn’t a mentality for me of just catching and shooting really fast. ... At first it was tough, but now I’ve kind of changed my mentality towards it and said, ‘OK, if that’s the case and the situation, how do you be the best at that?’
“That’s always my approach after every game — just figuring out ways to get better. For me, that’s just the evolution and growth of myself and my game.”
Harris’ attitude has been exemplary since the Sixers traded last year for Harden and his ideal offensive role changed considerably. He’s not naturally a confrontational, snarling personality, though; Harris prefers going with the flow.
Tucker has no hesitation saying anything he feels is necessary, which is one of the many “intangibles” that led to the Sixers signing him this summer. His unyielding defensive style and determination to force stars into difficult shots was another significant part of Tucker’s appeal. Great players tend to produce against whoever’s in front of them, but Tucker’s persistence still seems like it can frustrate and fatigue the NBA’s best. Pascal Siakam was tremendous in a 38-point, 15-rebound, six-assist performance, but he went scoreless in overtime.
Siakam shot 5 for 14 from the floor (0 for 3 from three-point range) with one assist and four turnovers when Tucker was the primary defender on him, per NBA.com.
“I thought Tuck all night was amazing defensively,” Harris said.
It wouldn’t be accurate (or fitting) to spin Monday’s showing as a gigantic, extremely encouraging step for the Sixers. They were slow and ineffective when the Raptors first played zone defense, blew another double-digit lead, and ultimately squeaked past a team that’s now lost six games in a row.
The Sixers keep winning, though, and it’s meaningful that their stars like much of the underlying process outside of X’s and O’s.
“We’re getting better at our communication,” Harden said. “We’re getting better game by game. (No matter) who we’re playing, it’s always about us. As long as we can communicate and know what we’re trying to accomplish on both ends of the ball ... and tonight was a great example of that.”
The Sixers will lose again at some point, although a 7-0 homestand now doesn’t sound outlandish at all. The 8-24 Pistons are up next on Wednesday night, followed by the Clippers on Friday.
Whether or not they enter the Christmas spotlight at Madison Square Garden on a seven-game streak, the Sixers have indeed worked to become much more ready to win.
“I think the biggest thing is, ‘Do you want to keep losing the same way, or do you really want to tell the truth about what’s going on?’ I think this team has seasoned vets when you talk about James, Joel, that have gotten paid, have accolades, and I think at the forefront of their minds is winning,” Niang said.
“And that’s how they come in and attack every day. … So I think there’s no real point where it’s like, ‘What is too much?’ I think everybody knows how to act civilly. But you’ve got to demand a lot out of people to win a championship in this league. No team has ever won a championship and said, ‘Oh, that was easy.’”