WEDNESDAY night the 76ers rolled into the Target Center in frigid Minneapolis and played one of - if not the - best quarters of basketball they have all season. Passes were crisp, shooting was on target, the running game was a successful blur. The first 12 minutes produced 39 points - 25 by the starters, 14 by the bench. They owned the boards against a very good rebounding team and played defense well enough to force the Timberwolves into 31 percent shooting.
It was as good as it can get. It was the style of play Brett Brown has been preaching since taking over as coach.
And it was a mirage. Twelve minutes of fool's gold.
Which is a good thing.
After his team had lost for the fourth consecutive time, eighth straight time on the road and 12th time in 14 games, Brown started his conversation with the media this way: "In the big picture . . . " Then a couple minutes later stated, "It's disappointing." His team blew that big lead, scored just 38 points in the second half, turned the ball over a total of 26 times. It was a microcosm of what this team really is.
The point is, while Brown knows that this season is only about auditioning players and finding pieces for the future ("in the big picture"), he wants to win each and every game ("it's disappointing"). He wants to win for him, but more importantly for his players. He wants them to be rewarded for the hard work, to reap some of the fruits of their labor.
Right now, that's not happening though.
Which is a good thing.
Let's get the 500-pound elephant out of the room right now. Brown knows, Sam Hinkie knows and everyone else in the organization knows that it behooves this team to lose as many games as possible to get the best chance at a top lottery pick. Fans know it and are rooting for losses.
Knowing it and doing it are two way different things, however. Watch Brown during practice or a game, or talk with him about his club, and the enthusiasm almost shoots out of the bottom of his low-top, white Adidas. It is the only way he knows to go about the game. It is the way his father taught him as a youngster, and it was further ingrained in his knowledgeable head by coach Rick Pitino at Boston University and, ultimately, polished by Gregg Popovich while Brown was an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs.
Losing is not part of the makeup of the man. He is addicted to winning and for 12 years under Popovich he was a junkie who got his fix each and every season. Now this.
Really, though, things are working out perfectly for the team right now. The young players who will be the future of this team are getting what is needed. Michael Carter-Williams, when healthy, will get ample minutes to adjust to the point-guard position. Nerlens Noels has the year to recover from his injured knee, bulk up his body and get plenty of tutoring from Brown. The three veterans in Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner are showing Brown firsthand what type of players they are, giving him information on whether they fit what he wants to do in the future, which right now only definitely includes Carter-Williams and Noel.
James Anderson and Tony Wroten are simply trying to prove to anyone who will watch that they belong in the NBA, and besides those mentioned above, they may have the best chance among the remaining roster.
That's where this team is. That is what Brown has to work with. Which is a positive.
There is no way Brown or his team is going to go into any game this season thinking about anything other than winning. The losses will mount because of how the roster is built.
In the fourth quarter of Wednesday's 106-99 loss to Minnesota, Brown used Anderson all 12 minutes. Lorenzo Brown and Brandon Davies got almost 5 minutes of play and Lavoy Allen contributed only two missed shots in his nearly 5 minutes.
It was a game in which Brown coached his ass off to win, as evident by his raspy voice afterward. But look at the players he had to use for a lot of minutes down the stretch.
That's where Hinkie has done a good job of ensuring the losses will mount.
The coach is the real deal. His players embrace his honesty, his "I'm in the trenches with you mentality," and his desire to get himself and players better.
Following the loss in Minnesota, Brown said: "I think to look at those free-throw numbers [25-12 in favor of T-wolves], the difference, and to look at the turnovers and the difference [26-13]. And to think that they had 20 more shots than we did and 17 offensive rebounds. If you close your eyes, you say, 'Well, that's a 30-point loss.' We had stats that were just too insurmountable. It's hard to make those type of deficits up on the road against a good team.
"We scored more point than them in the paint so there's some disconnects with the numbers. I feel like we do have to attack more, at times we settle too much. But it doesn't connect. You look at the points in the paint, 42 points we have in the paint. I'm not sure. It is disappointing. It's a game where I felt like we could have won."
The disconnect is this. The coach is doing everything he can to get his players in positions to win games. They are improving; he is teaching them what it takes to win. But the talent that is assembled doesn't allow it to happen most nights, and won't.
And that's a good thing.