MINNEAPOLIS - While the wins have been few and far between during the Brett Brown era, the one thing the Sixers coach has done tremendously is keep the players unified.
Through the 142 losses in 179 games, Brown has somehow been able to "build the moat," as he likes to say, trying to shun them from the negativity that automatically surrounds such losing.
The natives are growing restless, however, from fans to Brown to his players. It was heightened the past two games in which the 76ers appeared poised to snap their winless season in close games at Miami and at Minnesota. But their failures and questionable play at the end of those games have frayed the bonds that have held the team tight.
Brown is struggling on how to best use Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel together. While he starts both, they aren't on the floor all that much together, which is a big dent to the plan the coach envisioned. And in the end of the previous two games, Brown often made offensive and defensive substitutions with them, with Okafor getting the nod to score and Noel the one to defend.
Neither wants to be off the floor at the end, which isn't a surprise. Understandably, neither was happy in the locker room after the Minnesota loss, Okafor for not seeing the ball down the stretch, Noel for not seeing the floor.
Noel stayed on the bench for the final two minutes, 11 seconds against the Timberwolves. When he was replaced by Okafor - who was subbed for two minutes earlier by Noel - the game was tied at 91. You would think having your best defensive player on the floor would be a no-brainer, but at each stoppage, the Sixers were going back to the offensive end, so Brown stuck with Okafor.
But even that didn't work out, as the rookie didn't get off a shot in the final five minutes, despite having already scored 25 points. Brown is glad to see some of his players not wanting to back away from a big moment, but are the right ones making the right decisions when it comes to taking big shots?
"There is part of that and sometimes the game just presents," Brown said. "I don't want them playing scared, even when it's crunch time. I really don't. I think that if people have open shots . . . Jerami (Grant) made some drives to the basket, you know, then I want to encourage it. Sometimes when you look at your primary target, it's not there. We came out of a timeout, they made a big play out of one of our drawn plays, they shot a gap and made a steal, and then there was that series of and-one dunks that really turned the game."
Losing winnable games and having strategy questioned obviously aren't what Brown wants. He has been nothing short of masterful at keeping the mentality right. It just is getting harder and harder to do.
After playing only 12 minutes in the first half on Monday because of pain in his left knee, Nik Stauskas had an MRI on Tuesday that revealed no ligament damage. The team said Stauskas is listed as day-to-day with a bruised knee.