Even with 58 regular-season games to go, Brett Brown has "the end in mind" for his team. As he ponders how to best prepare the Sixers for playoff basketball, he's referred to that idea time and time again.
The end of the Sixers' 110-104 win Sunday night over the Raptors at Wells Fargo Center was ugly. The Sixers turned the ball over seven times in the final 4:14 against the Raptors' full-court pressure, including three by Joel Embiid.
"It is disappointing the way that ended because I thought for the most part, we played good basketball," Brown said. "It's just the way that it ended, you have a little bit of a sour taste in your mouth. And then I'm reminded it was a good weekend, we just beat the NBA champs. And there's lots of good things that came out of it, just the last part wasn't one of them."
The weekend back-to-back was indeed a fruitful one for the Sixers, who led the hapless Cavs by a franchise-record 41 points at halftime and played very well vs. the 15-7 Raptors with the exception of those final few minutes when it seemed everyone besides Toronto just wanted to hear the final buzzer.
But, with almost anything this team does, there's a natural instinct to consider the big picture.
Three of Simmons' career-high 34 points Saturday came on a long range jumper, and Brown wants him taking "a three-point shot a game, minimum," along with eight free throws a night. If Simmons gives Brown what he's looking for, what would it mean for the Sixers against opponents much better than the Cavs?
In his last two games, Embiid has 15 turnovers, and he's been an unfortunate combination of careless and oblivious against fourth-quarter pressure and double teams. Do the Sixers have a real chance to contend for an NBA title if he's making similar mistakes when the games are higher stakes?
Rookie Matisse Thybulle is emerging as a three-and-D player, and his success at home has mirrored the Sixers'. He's shot 65.4 percent from three-point range at home and has a plus-12.7 net rating at Wells Fargo Center. Those numbers plummet to 20.8 percent from long distance and a minus-14.1 net rating on the road. Can Thybulle and the Sixers - 12-0 at home, 5-7 away - eventually figure out how to win on the road?
Few of these larger questions lead to obvious answers at the moment, in part because of how often the starting lineup has been fractured.
Josh Richardson has missed six games in a row with a right hamstring injury. Al Horford is experiencing load management for the first time in his NBA career. Simmons was sidelined for consecutive games in early November with a shoulder sprain. And Embiid has sat out five games as a result of suspension, injury and load management.
The whole season it feels like I've been going through the motions and part of it is also making sure I'm healthy for the playoffs," Embiid told reporters Sunday. "Going into the season, the last playoffs that I've been part of I've not been healthy, so for me going into this season, my main goal was to make sure that I get to the playoffs healthy and so far I've been doing a good job of that -taking care of my body and also, on the court when I'm needed, I'm gonna bring it. But then again, I'm also lucky that we got so many guys that can make a lot of things happen. But if I'm needed, I'll be there.
Embiid's time on the court is substantially down from where it was at this point last season, even if this path isn't the one the Sixers would have meticulously mapped out before the year. He's played 19 of the team's first 24 games and 30.4 minutes per contest. In 2018-19, he played every one one of the team's first 24 games - all of the first 26, in fact - and averaged 34.1 minutes.
The idea of a player feeling as if he's "been going through the motions" might not be palatable for many fans. Embiid and the Sixers, though, aim to be healthy and the best versions of themselves when the games are more important.
Competing with that priority is Brown's insistence that the Sixers are chasing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. He said Saturday he hasn't "recalibrated" that preseason goal.
The Sixers obviously want the best of both worlds. These first 24 games, however, seem to suggest that - should they be competing in the second round of the playoffs for a third straight year - they see being better equipped to advance as more important than seeding. They want to have their top players available and well-conditioned. They want to understand how to capitalize on their strengths - size, defense, rebounding - and either gloss over or eliminate weaknesses with turnovers and shot creation.
Though Brown and his team have their ideas at this stage about how to reach that broad objective, there's no preset path to follow. One of the Sixers' best players has a history of injury and conditioning problems, the other is being asked to play point guard and doesn't have a history of taking and making jump shots, and the three other starters are relatively new additions.
None of that prohibits everything from working out in the end.
The Sixers are 17-7, have won 10 of 12 games and have 58 to go before the fun starts.
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