Well, Christmas is over. The Sixers seemed to have turned a corner of some sort against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, holding on in a tight one to emerge with a road victory, but they returned to their old ways in Portland, building leads back up only to have 'em topple down the stretch. More than even the bad Sixers teams of recent years, once this team starts to let the game slip away, the points just start gushing out until the team capsizes altogether. So an 18-point lead late in the third turned into a ten-point deficit a quarter later, and an eventual four-point loss, to a Blazers team missing Damian Lillard.
We don't have enough fingers to point them at all the people responsible. I guess we can start with the refs, since they essentially built an electric fence around Blazers point guard Shabazz Napier and allowed Jusuf Nurkic free reign to manhandle Joel Embiid once Nurk picked up his fifth foul early in the fourth. Portland ending the game shooting 47 free throws (!!!) to Philly's 14, and the most pivotal two for PDX were probably on an absurd flagrant that Embiid was assessed in the fourth on a light shove of his new big-man nemesis. (Nurkic missed both, but Philly's momentum had been officially sapped.)
And then of course, there's Brett Brown, who continues to play Embiid too many minutes while playing Richaun Holmes zero, and who seems unable to know what levers to pull when the Sixers fall into total late-game disassembly -- possibly because no such levers exist. I don't think Brett's mostly to blame here, but the more games like this the Sixers lose -- against a middling opponent down their best player, with a big lead late -- it's gonna get harder and harder to protect him.
Then there's, you know, the players. Though the final box score line isn't nasty -- 29 and 9, with a career-high six threes -- this was one of Embiid's weaker games on the season, as he failed to find his groove in the post and was beaten too often by the Blazers' interior passing. I don't mind JoJo shooting threes when that's what he's given, but I don't quite understand why he was perched behind the arc for so much of his game, and it seemed to affect his rhythm late. (Though again, Nurkic's seeming diplomatic immunity in the fourth was also a factor.)
Everyone else was a letdown late. J.J. Redick hit big shots for three quarters and dissolved in the fourth. Ben Simmons missed a bunch of looks around the rim. T.J. McConnell missed all three of his open looks from deep. Robert Covington left halfway through with a finger injury, which may have ended up a huge factor in this one as the Blazers' perimeter guys went wild in the late third and early fourth. Dario Saric was close to perfect for 47 minutes -- 25 points on 10-12 shooting, making up for his Knicks brickiness in spectacular fashion -- but then sealed the Sixers' fate on a thoughtless out-of-bounds violation with ten seconds to go. No one was innocent last night.
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So, back to four games under .500, with a bunch of road games still to go, most of whom will be harder this one. It might still be too early to talk about any games as must-wins for these Sixers, but at the very least, we're gonna have to have some must-not-blow-in-spectacular-fashions. This one's gonna be tough to get over before 2018.