PHILADELPHIA — The Sixers snapped a seven-game winning streak heading into Monday night’s road game against the Orlando Magic, and that’s how it will go down in history.
Seven games. Seven wins.
The headaches associated with this achievement — and there were many — will be easily masked by the results.
But that was the 15 points the Sixers trailed before Saturday’s 126-119 win over the Denver Nuggets. And that would be them earlier in the series, losing by 21 in the final stretch of a five-game road trip before beating a good team in Sacramento, 129-127.
In any NBA regular season, there will be surprising, interesting spikes in results. In any 48-minute game with a 24-second clock, there are likely to be lead changes. But the way the Sixers have gone full-service in recent games is more than a passing fad.
It’s how they’re built, how they’re trained, how they compete.
And it’s definitely a way to protect yourself when it matters most.
“It’s funny,” Doc Rivers said after the Denver game. “In the first half I thought we were too busy trying to score. We thought it was going to be an offensive game where we would just trade baskets with them. There was no physicality in the first half. We had 10 turnovers in the first half. We had 20 turnovers in the second half.
“For me, in the second half, we played the way we need to be a good basketball team. In the first half we wanted to exchange blows. They were shooting 66 percent at one point and I just thought physically we changed the game.”
The trick to this is having the talent assembled to successfully respond to the struggles in the game. It’s one thing to have the determination to rally, it’s another to have Joel Embiid on the payroll. At this point in their development as a contender, the Sixers are blessed with a plethora of star-level players who have seen everything … everything but a championship. So Embiid, James Harden, and Tobias Harris — among others — have not only the know-how to put together a rally, but also the desire to get the job done.
Then again, Harris had a different theory.
Probably just Doc yelling at us, he thought aloud.
“No,” Harris said, smiling. “We just find something during those deficits that gives us momentum and energy. We’re just figuring some things out to stop. At this point we are just trying to find something. And guys stepping up and making shots is huge for us to cut the deficit to as many points as we want to try to come out in the fourth quarter and try to make something happen.”
Rivers has been superb all season in providing the right scouting reports to the right defense at the right time. But what has made the Sixers work of late is how he’s been able to split the relatively new group into two functional units. With Embiid, Harris, Harden, PJ Tucker and De’Anthony Melton as the core group, but with Tyrese Maxey complementing Shaik Milton, Mathis Thibool, Montrezl Harrell and Georges Niyang, the Sixers are rarely short on talent. Therefore, rallies can occur at almost any moment.
“They just turned up the pressure, attacked us and got to the basket too easily,” Denver coach Michael Malone lamented. “They have an attack mentality.”
If it is to be traced to the source, it would be to Rivers. But Daryl Morey’s eye for such a player — in large part because of Embiid’s screams that the Sixers needed Tucker — also paid off. Whether it’s because of Tucker’s added presence or just the maturity of his own game, Embiid has gone from a questionable late-game offensive option to a reliable final possession player this season.
“I like the challenge of going into the fourth quarter with those types of possessions where you have to make plays, whether you’re on offense or defense,” he said. “This is where you find out who is made for moments like this.”