In every NBA season, there are a handful of games that cannot be won. It isn't a question of the talent disparity in either direction, or even how the play transpires on the court. These are simply unwinnable games, and anyone who has studied the league recognizes them.
Sometimes, it is a matter of the schedule, biorhythms, the phase of the moon, or just the human nature of occasionally coming to a wall and not having the will to climb it on that evening. Five times a season, maybe six. That's the business.
When Brett Brown surveyed the smoking wreckage of Sunday's loss in Brooklyn, however, he didn't take refuge in the just-one-of-those-nights explanation. There was something deeper that went wrong, something "unacceptable," according to the Sixers coach.
"That is not who we are," Brown said, although the box score was actually an accurate reflection of the team's worst tendencies. He was right that it didn't portray the better angels of their nature, but he also knew it wasn't so out of character that it could be dismissed as a freak loss devoid of greater meaning.
The most disturbing thing about the game, believe it or not, wasn't the 28 turnovers the team committed, which is a lot even by the Sixers' lax standards of ball security. The giveaways added up, of course, allowing the dreadful Nets too many offensive opportunities and limiting their own scorers, particularly Joel Embiid, who had only eight field-goal attempts instead of the 21 he had been averaging.
If wins and losses were only about mathematics, there is plenty to which the outcome could be ascribed. When one team takes 40 more shots than the other, that's some daunting arithmetic right there. But in this case, the coach was moved not by the numbers, but what caused the numbers.
"We will stay together and we will move on, but the truth is the truth," Brown said.
The truth is that a good, mentally tough basketball team can play a first half on occasion as poorly as did the Sixers. On Sunday, the Sixers committed 17 of those turnovers in the first half and were dangerous only to themselves. Because it was against the Nets, however, they trailed by just four points.
That is the juncture where the good, mentally tough team decides enough is enough and, usually with pointed urging from its head coach, goes out and makes chicken salad from the chicken scratching of the opening half. The game, by some miracle, is still there for the taking and the team appreciates the opportunity to avoid embarrassment.
What the Sixers did was somewhat different. They left the locker room and promptly gave up 41 points in the third quarter. Oops.
"It's the reality of the ages of the people that we have," Brown told the media after the game, partially excusing, at least for public consumption, what happened in Barclays Center. What he said to the team privately was much harsher.
"They hear me talk way deeper than what I get into with you guys. We spoke candidly," Brown said after practice Tuesday. "You weigh up your bullets throughout the course of the year and you use them. That was one of them. That game didn't sit well with me."
It's good to know Brown let them have it, both at halftime and after the game. Part of the outside criticism he receives is based on the perception that he coddles the players more than he challenges them. That's not the case. On the other hand, what remains troubling about this group is that it took the tongue-lashing at halftime … and went out and gave up the 41. That's not a good, mentally tough team.
"We're not spiritually at a stage that's able to do that right now," Brown said. "We're figuring some stuff out."
And the job of imparting that stuff is on him.
"It is. I'm the head coach," Brown said. "In a very sadistic way, I like this as a coach; the pain, the reality of what is really going on. We're not jab-stepping anything. We'll own this. I'll own this."
At least from the outside, what appears to be going on is that the players are dealing with a lot of internal and external static and noise. Go down the list: from the shooting of Markelle Fultz, to whom Ben Simmons is dating, to T.J. McConnell being chained to the bench, to the illustrious Furkan Korkmaz demanding a trade, to a bunch of guys on one-year contracts, to the heightened expectations that they are not yet capable of meeting and, hey, it's a lot.
Brown's theory is that all of it will make them stronger down the road, and that the pain will leave a scar that hardens into a muscle.
"Controversy is good," he said. "They will respond to it."
It's a nice thought, and maybe things will work out that way. A performance like the one Sunday against the Nets does serve as a reminder that neither progress nor a process travels in a straight line. It was not to be accepted, though, and even a coach who understands the long game knew it required him to spend some of his allotted anger ammunition to make that point.