IT WAS THE first day of training camp back in September at Stockton College, and the first words uttered out of coach Brett Brown's mouth were about improving the defense.
"That will be the theme of the season," he said. "We will not let it go."
At the beginning of last year's training camp, just a little over a month after Brown was hired, the new coach said that with the roster he inherited and with the plan of stripping it down even further, offensive pace would be his main focus. The team went on to lead the league for most of the season in pace.
This year, after a slow start, Brown's teaching has come through for the team that enters tonight's game in Portland on a two-game winning streak. They currently rank 11th in the league in defensive efficiency, which is points per 100 possessions. Brown spoke proudly of his team's standing in that statistic, especially after his Sixers hovered near last in the league just about all of last season. Later in the day, his club held the Miami Heat to only 30 points in the second half during an improbable comeback win in which they trailed by 23 points with just over 8 minutes to go in the third quarter.
"We want to win games," Brown said. "These guys wake up the next morning and feel good about what we've done. The thing that I'm feeling better about is we're now 11th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. We were 30th. I break it down with these guys in thirds-of-the-year. It's the beginning to Christmas, Christmas to the All-Star break and then All-Star break to home. To be 11th right now, we're proud of that."
As with everything with this young group, Brown has to set his sights on one thing at a time. Last year, pace; this year, defense. But as those things get comprehended, he can move on to more.
"I remind our guys, I think that we're a C-minus passing team," he said. "I think we take contested, tough shots a lot. We don't make the extra pass as much as we need to. Plus, we lead the league in turnovers. If you're going to lead the NBA in turnovers and you're going to be a C-minus passing team . . . Imagine if we can reduce our turnovers and improve our passing. Our defense, at times, is good enough to win games, but, because of our offense, we can't. I think if we cannot turn it over as much, which would help our transition defense, maybe we can move into single digits (in defensive efficiency rankings). I'm really focused on that. Do you make the extra pass? Do you not play in a crowd and turn it over? Because our defense is moving in the direction that we want.
"For us, the way we declared the year and you've heard me speak ad nauseam about we have to guard. We've done it and we've invested time in it. It validates my opinion that we can actually get better on things that we spend time at. How much is always the argument, but we've paid attention and we've been rewarded. We haven't let some basic things go.
"In my old life [in San Antonio], we would call upon many ways to guard pick-and-rolls. We called many ways to guard the post, made in-game adjustments. You were forced to during the playoffs. You rarely could live in one thing for seven games. Here, we just haven't let one or two things go and we just zoom in on them and we haven't let them go since Stockton. I'm seeing carryover and improvement with a knowledge of this is what we're trying to do. So when we don't do it, there are no curveballs.
"It's very black and white and they understand what becomes self-correctable. They understand what we're trying to achieve in pick-and-roll and post defense and transition defense and pin-down defense, etc."
One of the most important pieces to Brown's defense is Nerlens Noel, the team's only true rim protector. His most impressive game on that end might have been during Tuesday's 91-87 win over the Heat. Though he had a horrible offensive game, shooting 0-for-5 from the floor, the 6-11 pogo stick grabbed 10 rebounds and was a force around the rim, forcing the Heat to kick the ball out on drives to the basket in the second half. It was a huge reason the team was able to make the comeback, as Miami went 0-for-9 in the fourth quarter from three-point range.
"They do have an identity for a young team," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. "They really get after you with their speed, athleticism and quickness. They make it uncomfortable. We didn't respond to that. Our offense was empty. You have to credit their defense. They really threw everything at us and made it tough."
Sixers at Portland Trail Blazers
When: Tonight, 10 o'clock
Where: Moda Center, Portland
TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet / The Fanatic (97.5 FM)
Game stuff: Not an easy beginning to the five-game western trip. There might be no one in the league hotter than Portland guard Damian Lillard, who has dropped 40 or more points in two of the team's last four games.
Sixers at Utah Jazz
When: Saturday, 9 o'clock
Where: EnergySolutions Arena, Salt Lake City
TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/ The Fanatic (97.5 FM)
Game stuff: The Jazz is coming off one of its biggest wins of the season, a 97-91 decision in Memphis. Utah has also had a lot of rest, as that game was played on Monday. The game in Memphis ended a six-game road trip over 9 days, in which the team traveled close to 6,000 miles.
Sixers at Golden State Warriors
When: Tuesday, 10:30 p.m.
Where: Oracle Arena, San Francisco
TV/Radio: The Comcast Network/ 97.5 The Fanatic (97.5 FM)
Game stuff: The Warriors suffered one of the biggest upsets in the NBA this season, when they were beaten by the Kobe Bryant-less Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday. In the loss to the Lakers, Golden State trailed by 34-24 in the first quarter. It was the first time this season they trailed by double figures after the opening quarter.
By the numbers
17,937: That's the amount of career points scored by Miami guard Dwyane Wade entering the game against the Sixers on Tuesday.
5,527: That's the total career points of the eight players that were available to play for the Sixers going into the Miami game.
0: That's how many fastbreak points the Sixers and Heat combined for in the fourth quarter of their game on Tuesday.
On Twitter: @BobCooney76