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.”

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

BOX SCORE

The Sixers weren’t supposed to beat the Raptors, were they? This was going to be an “easy” game for the visiting team, which was coming to Philadelphia on a back-to-back that started in Brooklyn. The Raptors are a playoff team, and second in the Eastern Conference at that. Not to mention, they had defeated the Sixers in their last 14 meetings.

Maybe easy would have been the case the last time the two teams played back in mid-December. For the Sixers, though, things have changed since then and a 94-89 win over the Raptors on Wednesday proved this recent success is not fleeting (see Instant Replay).

“I don’t think it’s a fluke,” Joel Embiid said. “We’re competing. We’re winning games. We’re playing great defense. We finally found what we’ve been looking for.”

The Sixers had been missing clearly-defined roles and a defensive identity (see story). Now that Brett Brown has whittled down his roster to 10 players and laid out a starting five and second unit, the team has been gelling in those two aspects. The Sixers have won seven out of their last nine games, with the Raptors being the highest caliber of competition.

The Raptors entered the game averaging 111.5 points per game, first in the East and third in the NBA behind only the Warriors and Rockets. They had scored less than 100 points in just seven games this season. Additionally, the Raptors had been held to under 90 points by a single opponent: the Spurs. Not bad company to be in. 

Embiid led all players with 26 points (including 12 for 14 from the free throw line) to go with nine rebounds (see highlights). The Sixers staved off 25 points (11 for 21 from the field), six assists and three rebounds from DeMar DeRozan and 24 points (11 for 16 from the line), four rebounds, four assists and five steals from Kyle Lowry, who fouled out. The Raptors shot 25 percent from three and 65.2 percent at the free throw line.  

“We’re playing with a spirit, we’re playing with a defensive mindset,” Brown said. “There is a belief within each other amongst the team that is the best that it’s been since I’ve been here.”

The Sixers' winning stretch began against subpar teams, opponents who earlier in the season some would look at the schedule and say, the Sixers could probably take that one, as they tried to project a batch of victories. The Sixers turned those wins over the Nuggets, Timberwolves and Nets into momentum and carried it into a matchup against the Knicks.

Even though the Knicks are looking lost this season, they still have veteran offensive firepower that can take over a game against a struggling opponent. The Sixers made noise by beating them at the buzzer, then escalated their performance against the postseason-hungry Hornets and Bucks. 

The Raptors are different, though. There is no questioning their success and potential to make a deep playoff run … again. Nonetheless, the Sixers handled this well-seasoned opponent with composure and confidence down the stretch. 

They stayed together when DeRozan hit a jumper with 1:53 to play to give the Raptors their first lead since the second quarter. The Sixers responded to the one-point deficit with a 7-0 run to push the edge up to six points with 20.7 seconds to go.

“I think it says we’re for real. It shows our consistency that we’ve built throughout the year,” Nerlens Noel said. “We’re relentless. We have a young group of guys that know how to play the game and play it the right way and will come out there and compete against anybody in this league. I think the perception should be a whole different one now.”

The Sixers showed they can compete with top talent. Their wins aren't just coming from teams at the bottom of the standings. 

"That gives us a lot of confidence," Embiid said. "Coming into the game, we had a lot of confidence. Winning against the second-best team in the East is just amazing. We’re going to keep on working."

Sixers frustrate Raptors, finding 'defensive identity'

Sixers frustrate Raptors, finding 'defensive identity'

The Toronto Raptors were the latest victims of the red-hot Sixers on Wednesday.

The Sixers held the highest scoring team in the Eastern Conference to more than 20 points below their average in a 94-89 win at the Wells Fargo Center (see Instant Replay).

The visiting Raptors were visibly and vocally frustrated after the game.

"They're a good team, they've been playing well, no disrespect to them, but we missed a lot of wide-open shots," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "Those are shots we normally make but we knew we had our hands full coming in here. We knew it was gonna be a grind-it-out game."

Blaming it on bad luck and missing "wide open shots" seems to be oversimplifying it just a tad. Toronto was held to 39.5 percent from the field and went just 6 of 24 from three.

A big factor in slowing down the Raptors is containing the dangerous backcourt duo of DeMar DeRozan and Villanova product Kyle Lowry. DeRozan finished with 25 points, below his average of 28.2, which was in the top five in the league coming in.

Lowry was even more frustrated by the Sixers' swarming defense. He finished with 24 points but on just 5 of 13 from the field. He also committed five turnovers, picked up a technical foul and fouled out in the final seconds. When asked what the Sixers did to slow him down, Lowry wasn't buying into the hype.

"I think we got everything we wanted," Lowry said. "We got every shot we wanted. We just didn't convert it.

"They won the game. Give them credit. They played with passion and energy. That's one thing they got us on tonight."

You don't win seven out of nine games and take down the second-best team in the conference with sheer will. The Sixers have become a strong team on the defensive end of the floor.

They're currently 10th in the NBA in defensive rating. A big part of that has been the emergence of Joel Embiid as an elite rim protector. For as great as "The Process" has been offensively, his largest impact is really on the defensive end.

He wasn't the only rookie engaged on defense Wednesday night. Dario Saric came through with consecutive blocks of Norman Powell and Jared Sullinger in the early fourth quarter, denying the Raptors a chance to cut into the Sixers' lead (see video).

"Dario never blocks shots and he had two in a row," Embiid said. "Especially at the rim like that, blocking Sullinger, that’s the type of play we need. The crowd obviously got into. I’m just glad he’s here with us like he promised he was going to be after two years."

Taking the torch from Saric, Embiid's block on a Lowry drive with 22.9 seconds left sealed arguably the Sixers' biggest win of the season, moments after Covington rejected a Lowry three (see video).

"One thing I care about is defense," Embiid said. "Everybody around me has to follow my lead because I am the last line of defense. One thing I care about in my career is winning Defensive Player of the Year. These guys know they can go for steals, and make stops, since I am the last guy there to block the shot.

"I don’t think it’s a fluke. We’re competing, playing great defense, winning games, and we found what we’re looking for. Everybody was trying to find themselves, and we all still have a lot to learn. We have some great players that are coming together."

Prior to the game, Casey had some lofty praise for the rookie big man. He compared Embiid to a former Rookie of the Year and 2016 inductee into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Shaquille O'Neal.

He walked away from this game even more impressed.

"He's a very talented player," Casey said of Embiid after the game. "He made a difference at the rim. Challenging shots. Offensively, he's different because if you go out on him too quick, he's gonna drive by your big. His ability to attack the rim and shoot the three, his post play. And again, he's becoming a better passer so he's gonna be a handful. We know that."

Like any season, there are going to be ups and downs. For the Sixers it's been mostly downs for three straight years. This recent run has breathed new life into this franchise and this fan base.

Embiid's ascension into a legitimate superstar has been a huge help. Dario Saric coming from overseas to provide his grit, skill and basketball IQ has been key. T.J. McConnell's promotion to the starting lineup and the additions of veterans like Ersan Ilyasova and Gerald Henderson have steadied the ship.

But as Brett Brown has said many times, the Sixers bread is buttered on the defensive end of the floor.

"I get very excited and proud of our group when they hear me talk so much about defensive identity," Brown said. "You know, who are we? How are you going to build a program? How are you going to grow the program? Words are cheap. I think results are real. And lately, they're buying in and executing our defensive game plan and they're playing with a tremendous spirit and togetherness, they really get into playing defense. That is beyond exciting for me."