THE COACHES, players and front office people of the 76ers have said often during the past few years of unbearable losing that there are no more moral victories. Close losses to overpowering teams just mean a higher number in the right-hand column of the record.
This young team needs to learn real lessons, in the heat of the moment. They need to feel what it takes to win close games in the waning minutes. They have to, as a team and as individuals, learn what it takes to play for 48 minutes, with no possessions off at either end of the floor.
In the span of less than 48 hours, they encountered perfect examples of what they should be striving to become.
Dwyane Wade is 34 years old and has accomplished just about everything in the game of basketball. He has returned home this season to probably finish out his career with the Chicago Bulls. But Wade isn't done as a player, far from it. And when Jerryd Bayless shared his thoughts with Wade on Friday in what was already a lopsided Chicago lead, the three-time NBA champion proceeded to score 11 points in a span of two minutes and 25 seconds in what ended as a Bulls' blowout win.
In the first quarter Sunday against the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers, Joel Embiid went hard to the basket and scored a layup while being fouled by veteran Richard Jefferson. The 7-2, 276-pound Sixers rookie then taunted Jefferson. That didn't provoke the reaction like the one Wade had on Friday, but LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love certainly took notice.
And when they felt it was time to grab a victory away from the Sixers, they did so with the precision of three of the world's finest surgeons. James posted a triple-double with 26 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds, Irving had a game-high 39 points, including 19 in the decisive fourth quarter, and Love finished with 25 points and 11 rebounds, despite suffering a cut near his right eye that required stitches in the first quarter of a 112-108 win over the Sixers.
When another level is needed to be reached, the great ones can get there quicker and more often than most players - like the ones that currently make up the Sixers roster.
The young Sixers learned that this weekend, with some of the best educators in the game of basketball in professors Wade, James, Irving and Love.
"That's individual brilliance, just one-on-one stuff," said Sixers coach Brett Brown of Irving's fourth-quarter burst. "You can always learn from those guys. Think of the talent that just rolled through the door - you talk about MVPs, Olympian gold medalists, All-Stars, all that in the last (48) hours. I feel that what stands out to all of us is that when players of that caliber choose to, they can rise up to a different level. So you go through the rhythm of a regular-season NBA game and the first period goes away and the second period goes away and then the third period starts getting towards the end of the game and it starts to get a little tense and real and they can go to another level. And they did and we all felt it and saw it. That's the lesson that we've all learned since we've been here for three years and 17 games, that it's a long game for us. You have to learn how to play 48 minutes. That's the lesson for our guys."
Brown has one of those players who appears to have the ability to rise to another level when the game calls for it, but Embiid played in just his 12th NBA game Sunday, when he totaled 22 points, nine rebounds and three blocks. There is little doubt that someday Embiid could be that superstar player, capable of taking over when a game is on the line; being able to turn a taunt from another player into motivation that produces unstoppable play.
For others on the team, however, they have to be able to see the lessons laid out before them over the past two games. While star ability may not be in their DNA, they had to have seen that Wade simply does not take a play off at either end of the floor. Ever. They need to absorb how James and Irving are as competitive in the 15th game of the season as they were while winning the NBA title a season ago and that Love is willing to do anything needed to be a factor in his team's wins.
Superstars don't dip heads after missed shots, or blown defensive assignments or bad turnovers. They learn and get better at not doing it again. Then, their superstar abilities elevate them to the lofty status of legends.
"We have the most respect for all of those guys as they've prove they belong in the superstar category," said Nik Stauskas, who finished the game with 11 points off the bench. "For guys like me to see the way that they're able to take over games, it's unbelievable. I just want to know what I have to do to get to that level to help my team win."
Stauskas knows he'll never reach the lofty status of the stars who visited the Wells Fargo Center this weekend, but he also knows only part of their specialness is ability. The hard work accounts for just as much.
"Confidence and aggressiveness are the biggest things," said Stauskas. "They really believe that they can take over the game at any time and once they know it's time, that's when it all comes together.
"I think with a guy like Joel, I think he has the potential to be a dominant force like that, a guy that we can give the ball to at any time and tell him to go make a play. But it's going to take some time. Not all of those guys had it as soon as they stepped into the league."
And James and Wade and Irving and Love learned it from the superstars they played against when they entered the league. Friday and Sunday brought about two more losses for the Sixers, who fell to 4-13 on the season. But if this program is going to move forward, the players can't look at the results as that simple. They need to study not just the skill of the stars who just passed through, but the work ethic that goes along with it.