Are the Sixers resigned to their fate?

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Are the Sixers resigned to their fate?

The game had just ended, along with the series and the season. Sixers owners Joshua Harris and Adam Aron were walking through the TD Bank North Garden in Boston when they ran into Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. Rivers told them, after seven games, he was glad his guys wouldn’t have to fight their guys any longer. It was a compliment. Harris and Aron nodded in appreciation.

That was last year. It seems like much longer ago.

The Celtics came to Philadelphia on Tuesday. This Boston team and this Sixers team are vague versions of the squads that battled during the playoffs last season. The Celtics were without Rajon Rondo. The Sixers were without a lot of things, including (but not limited to) hope.

The Celtics beat the Sixers, 109-101. It was the Sixers' ninth loss in their last 10 games.

“You’d think we would win that game,” Collins said, reading off numbers from the stat sheet.

The Sixers had seven players score in double figures. Jrue Holiday (18 points, 10 assists) and Thaddeus Young (19 points, 10 rebounds) both had double-doubles. The team posted 64 points in the paint, and Arnett Moultrie gave them a solid effort (19 minutes, 10 points). And they still lost. It has how the season has gone for the Sixers. Nothing works out even when it looks like it should.

Before the game, an out-of-town writer asked Doug Collins if he was worried about the way the season has gone and the way it might continue to deteriorate considering the brutal upcoming schedule. It was a fair question.

The Sixers (23-36) have 23 games remaining -- 15 of those (including 12 of the final 16) are on the road. During the slog, they must play at Atlanta, Miami, the L.A. Clippers, Denver, Utah, Atlanta again, Miami again, Brooklyn and Indiana. It is cause for concern.

Collins paused before answering. He didn’t seem to like the question or the attendant implication.

“Worry,” he replied, “is the greatest thief of joy.”

OK. But considering what’s ahead, the Sixers should be worried. In terms of worry stealing joy, the schedule should act as the Ocean’s Eleven crew -- it should heist all their joy right out from under them.

Collins’ needn’t worry, though. His guys don’t seemed worried, and they don’t appear to lack for joy. In the run-up to the Celtics game, several players were sitting around the locker room laughing about Swaggy P’s "Shaggy P." After the game, a couple of players laughed out loud just as the media entered the locker room. Another reporter watched the scene unfold, then remarked that the Sixers appeared in pretty good spirits for a team that’s only won 23 times.

Maybe the pressure -- to the extent that there was any on this team -- is off the Sixers now. The expectations placed upon them after acquiring Andrew Bynum have been lifted since the center has missed the entire season and recently said he isn’t sure that he’ll play at all this year. Between Bynum’s off-court saga and the team’s on-court struggles, the Sixers are so far from the playoffs that they’d need a high-powered telescope just to get a fuzzy glimpse. At some point, perhaps they looked around and accepted their situation.

After all, even Collins -- who has repeatedly said the Sixers will try to win every game the rest of the way despite the fact that losing would help them load up on precious ping pong balls -- entertained a question about potentially being excluded from the postseason.

“Anytime you miss the playoffs, it should hurt,” Collins allowed. “When anytime the season is over and you go home and you turn on the playoff games and you’re not part of it, that should be very painful. All the guys want to make the playoffs. There’s not a guy in our locker room that doesn’t want to be in the playoffs. Our guys, I feel badly for them, what they’ve had to go through this year with the injuries and everything like that has been very tough. We’ve lost Jrue for some games and Thad the games he missed I think we were 1-9. We lost Swaggy. We lost two starters. We traded away a lot.

"You know, the plans that we had this year for this season, we really haven’t been able to see that. There’s no excuses. Nobody is going to make any excuses for anybody. We just haven’t had a chance to see that. I think our guys have done a nice job fighting through that. They’ve given all they can give.”

Nerlens Noel excited for impending return to game action

Nerlens Noel excited for impending return to game action

NEW ORLEANS -- The weeks and months have quickly piled up. Nerlens Noel has not played an NBA regular-season game since last season ended for the Sixers on April 13. Nearly eight months later, Noel is nearing the return he has been eyeing for quite some time now. 

“It’s always an excitement to be able to play basketball after this amount of time, including the summer, not being able to play organized basketball at a competitive level,” Noel said Thursday. “I’ve been really looking forward to this. I think I’ve gained some momentum coming back from this minor surgery, and I think I’m in a really good place and I’m feeling good with my body. Everything is on point.”

Noel has been sidelined since undergoing elective left knee surgery in October to address an inflamed plica. He traveled to New Orleans on Wednesday to join the Sixers ahead of their 99-88 win over the Pelicans (see game recap). Noel continued his rehab Thursday while the team prepped for the game. 

“I’ve been able do five-on-five, full contact,” Noel said. “I’ve tried to maximize my opportunities of that with the team being gone on the road. I came down here and went through most of shootaround and it went well. Now these next couple of days, [I will be] going through practice, still working on my wind. I do like where I’m at now.”

The Sixers’ next game is Sunday against the Pistons in Detroit. Brett Brown had given Noel’s availability for that game a “maybe” (see story)

“I’m not sure,” Noel said of playing Sunday. “I’m ready to go with these next couple of days and see how my wind feels and how my body feels, which I have been feeling good. So it’s a possibility.”

When Noel does return, there is a scenario in which he could be paired with center Joel Embiid. Last year, the Sixers struggled finding the best way to utilize Noel and Jahlil Okafor, also a center, at the same time playing the four and five positions. As Okafor has said of playing with Embiid, Noel also believes his off-the-court friendship with the towering rookie would translate onto the court. 

“I think it would be something that’s experimented,” Noel said. “It’d definitely be interesting.”

Noel candidly expressed his opinion of the Sixers’ logjammed frontcourt at the start of the season. Since speaking to the media after his surgery, Noel has mentioned he is in a good mental place (see story). For him, that means being out on the court again. 

“I love myself and I love the game of basketball,” Noel said. “When I step out here to come and play, it just brings a lot of enjoyment and excitement to me. Regardless of what the details of it are, I just love the game and I’m happy to just be playing.”

Best of NBA: Bulls hand Spurs first road loss of season

Best of NBA: Bulls hand Spurs first road loss of season

CHICAGO -- Dwyane Wade scored 20 points, and the Chicago Bulls handed San Antonio its first road loss after a 13-0 start, hanging on to beat the Spurs 95-91 on Thursday night.

San Antonio fell one win shy of matching the NBA's best road start set by the Golden State Warriors last season. The Spurs cut an 18-point deficit midway through the third quarter to four in the closing minutes, only to come up short.

Kawhi Leonard scored 24 for San Antonio. Patty Mills added 16 points, hitting 4 of 6 3-pointers. Former Bull Pau Gasol had 13 points and 10 rebounds in his first game in Chicago since signing with San Antonio in the summer, but the Spurs lost a road game for the first time since Oklahoma City knocked them out in the Western Conference semifinals last season.

Jimmy Butler scored all of his 13 points for Chicago in the second half. Rajon Rondo added 12 points, nine assists and 10 rebounds, and Chicago picked up the win after dropping three in a row and six of nine.

The Spurs hadn't dropped a regular-season road game since Denver beat them on April 8 (see full recap).

Scoreboard malfunction, quiet crowd don’t stop Wizards’ rally
WASHINGTON -- Overcoming a sluggish start in front of a sparse, silent crowd and with a malfunctioning scoreboard, the Washington Wizards came back to beat the Nuggets 92-85 on Thursday night, thanks mainly to Bradley Beal's 26 points and Denver's season-high 29 turnovers.

John Wall scored only 15 points one game after a career-best 52, but nine came in the fourth quarter for Washington, which trailed by as many as 14 in the first half.

With starting point guard Emmanuel Mudiay inactive because of what the team said was a sprained right ankle, the Nuggets went 5 1/2 minutes without a point in the fourth quarter.

In that final period, they had 10 of their turnovers and shot 1 for 14 on 3-pointers -- including 0 for 4 in one last-minute possession (see full recap).

Gasol, clutch free throws lift Grizzlies over
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Marc Gasol scored 36 points and Toney Douglas made two free throws with less than a second left to give the Memphis Grizzlies an 88-86 comeback victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night.

Douglas finished with 11 points, scoring the game's final six points to seal Memphis' fifth straight victory.

Gasol was 13 of 24 from the field, including 4 of 6 from outside the arc. But Douglas, signed by Memphis this week because of injuries, took over down the stretch. The guard scored on a 19-footer with 34 seconds left, then converted two pairs of free throws in the last 20 seconds.

CJ McCollum led the Trail Blazers with 24 points, and Damian Lillard had 19 on 6-of-18 shooting. Evan Turner had 15 points and 10 rebounds (see full recap).