Tired Sixers handed crushing loss by Hawks

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Tired Sixers handed crushing loss by Hawks

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These are the dog days of the NBA season, Sixers head coach Doug Collins said immediately after his team suffered a 124-101 loss to the playoff-bound Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center (see Instant Replay).

Need proof? Just take a look at Jrue Holiday's stat line from Wednesday night.

Need more? Check out what Holiday did on Tuesday night in Brooklyn.

Two games, two assists, six turnovers and 15 missed shots in 55 minutes.

Oh yes, these are the dog days indeed.

“I’m tired,” Holiday said. “There’s a lot of fatigue and I try to take care of my body as best as possible, but that’s not really an excuse.”

Holiday is struggling as the Sixers limp to the end of a disappointing season. Wednesday's defeat dropped them to 31-47 with four games to go. But Holiday's struggles are not appearing seemingly out of nowhere. A glance at the season-long stat sheet shows that the Sixers' All-Star point guard had been trending downward for a few weeks.

The culprit? Too many minutes, too many games and too much responsibility all thrown his way at once.

For Holiday, the season has been like he just learned how to doggy paddle and was immediately thrown into the deep end.

“Imagine if we were a playoff team right now and getting ready to go into the playoffs,” Collins said. “That’s what I talked about with the growth. The added minutes, added responsibility, an All-Star -- every time you go out there to play now [opposing players get ready].”

But that's the way it's going to be for a player the Sixers have gone all-in on. Opening night Holiday got a four-year contract extension. With Thad Young, the Sixers have two pieces of the jigsaw puzzle they have been putting together for the past decade.

But at 22, Holiday has been thrust into the limelight quickly. Given that he plays the most demanding position on the floor, the candle has burned at both ends.

It's not that Holiday can't handle it. He just didn't have enough help.

Obviously, Andrew Bynum was supposed to provide the help to boost the Sixers into the elite of the Eastern Conference. Obviously, that never happened.

Bynum would have been pretty helpful on the boards against the bruising Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday night when they out-rebounded the Sixers by 33 with Reggie Evans grabbing 24 boards.

Bynum also would have been a great deterrent to the Hawks' fastbreak, too. Without the reinforcements, the Hawks scored 25 fastbreak points, forced 15 turnovers and notched eight steals.

Holiday was charged with five of those 15 turnovers.

“We so used to value the ball,” Collins said. “We led the league last year in fewest turnovers. Too many times I look down and I see too many points off turnovers. We were minus-12 [in points off turnovers] tonight. If we’re down in that stat, chances are we’re not going to win the game. That’s a real barometer for our team.”

The Sixers have had a small margin for error all season long. As such, the increased turnovers required speed and the Sixers haven't had it this year. Where other teams could beat them in transition for dunks and kick-out threes, that element was missing this year for Collins' crew.

“One of the things we’ve missed this year is speed on the wings,” Collins said.

They did have hustle an energy from Young, who finished the game with 28 points on 14-for-20 shooting. Young scored 22 points during the first half for a Sixers' season best and also helped the team build an early eight-point lead.

But it didn't last no matter how hard Young worked.

“I wanted to come out and show that I had energy and I’m still trying to win games,” Young said. “I’m focused finishing the season the right way and continue playing as hard as I can.”

The Sixers return to action on Friday night when they travel to Washington to face the Wizards. After that, the Sixers return home for the last game of the year at the Wells Fargo Center on Sunday against Cleveland.

The season wraps up with a game in Detroit on Monday and the finale in Indianapolis next Wednesday.

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

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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 its average in a 94-89 win at the Wells Fargo Center (see story).

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 early in the 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.

Casey walked away from this game even more impressed.

"He's a very talented player," Casey said of Embiid. "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. 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."