THE QUIPS were plentiful last night at the Wells Fargo Center before the New York Knicks and 76ers played. It's easy to come up with some jabs when the teams went into the game a combined 30-106.
"Are these two 17 seeds playing?" asked one fan, referring to March Madness.
"Not sure I've ever come to a game where both teams would be better off losing," said another.
If you've followed the Sixers at all this season, you know that is not part of Brett Brown's DNA. He looks at each game as a chance to win in the league, and whether it would be more beneficial to catch the Knicks in losses just isn't something that would ever enter his mind, or his team's. So it goes a long way in explaining his club's crisp, 97-81 win.
The game plan seemed pretty simple against the Knicks (14-55), and it wasn't one that the team has used a lot this season. Nerlens Noel spent much of the game going against Andrea Bargnani and Lou Amundson. When it comes to foot speed, it compares to tortoise versus hare. Noel repeatedly beat those two, and many others, down the floor for much of the game and also used his quickness off the dribble to get to the rim in posting a career-high 23 points to go with 14 rebounds, five steals and three blocks. It was the most dominating night of his career. And as the baskets kept falling, his confidence grew.
Ish Smith collected 15 points and nine assists, Luc Mbah a Moute scored 14 and Isaiah Canaan added 12 as the Sixers improved to 17-52.
This one could have even been more lopsided if it hadn't been for former Sixer Alexey Shved, who scored 25 points, shooting 7-for-8 on three-pointers.
"He's just playing with a freedom and you saw a skilled, long guard that loves to score and can score in a variety of ways," said Brown. "I think he's found a good home. I think that the triangle offense suits him. I think his skill package suits them and what he can do in that type of offense. I think it's a good fit."
It would seem only natural that with the season winding down and the loss total piling up most of the season, this would be a time when the focus of his players would be drifting more toward sun and sand instead of pick-and-rolls. But Brown's team hasn't wavered from the plan one bit, according to their coach. Last night against the lowlier Knicks, the play was just as hard, the concentration solid and this time the result was favorable.
"I'm not seeing it at all," Brown said of any loss of focus. "If we challenge them the way that we have challenged them recently and there was no pulse, if there was no response, then I would be a little nervous. Since the day I got this job, we talked always about holding the locker room together. We're young, we're going to lose, we're going to take some hits and I thought last year we ended with the needle pointing up. We ended strong. Arguably one of our best games was Game 82 at Miami.
"The last game, we talked about how we're poor starting and we needed to fix it and then do what we have been doing: a really good job in the second half of games and continue that good defensive performance. And they fixed it in the first period last game defensively. I'm seeing no 'Oh, it's March 20th and we're not making playoffs and let's just end this thing and go to Key West.' I'm not seeing that at all. Our guys are here to mean it. They're here for real. It's a credit to a young group. It's a credit to that locker room and it's a prideful team that I love coaching."
It was brought to the attention of Brett Brown before the game that last night was the first time all season his team was the favorite. Someone else also stated that it was the first time in about 100 games that the Sixers weren't the underdog. Whatever the case, it didn't matter to Brown. Nor did the talk of losing being more beneficial to his team or the Knicks.
"I'm aware of it, but it doesn't [mean] anything," said Brown. "If you have a look at what we've done and you've paid attention to me, you understand that we go and we play as hard as we can. I coach as hard as I can and we try to win games. It all starts and stops there. That is my clear, easily given answer."
Forward Thomas Robinson sat out with bruised ribs. He said he suffered them on Wednesday against Detroit and tried to play through the injury but couldn't . . . The Sixers flew this morning to Los Angeles, where they'll play the Lakers tomorrow. The road trip also includes games in Sacramento on Tuesday and Denver on Wednesday.