NEW ORLEANS - Hard to believe that during an eight-game losing streak a coach could see something positive emerging from his team. But that's why they are coaches, because they see things others don't.
Brett Brown saw his team improving defensively over the past several games, though that translated into little but close losses, for the most part.
Thursday against the Pelicans, that was different. The Sixers held New Orleans to 12-for-40 shooting (30 percent) and 31 points in the final 24 minutes and rode that to a 99-88 win.
"I think our defense has been trending that way," said Brown, whose team improved to 5-18. "We just haven't had a win to validate it. I feel like our defense was physical. We've been playing Dario (Saric) at some 'three' and so you roll out those bigs, and it's a big team. Defensively, we have been trending well."
Streaks, like records, are made to be broken. The 76ers have challenged many losing streaks, and broken some, over the past four seasons. They stopped a big one at the Smoothie King Center, as they won a road game for the first time after 23 consecutive losses.
The game turned toward the Sixers in the third quarter when they limited the Pelicans (7-16) to 5-for-25 shooting and held them to only 12 points, taking a two-point advantage into the fourth quarter. There, they grew the lead to as much as 10 with continued hounding defense, especially on star player Anthony Davis.
The Sixers benefited from balanced scoring as Ersan Ilyasova dropped 23 points, while Sergio Rodriguez had 16. Joel Embiid and Nik Stauskas scored 14 each, while Saric chipped in 13.
When it comes to learning basketball at the NBA level, Embiid doesn't limit his resources to his coaches. A true student of the game, Embiid keenly watches other players in the league, learning their nuances, copying their abilities.
His tutorial Thursday night was delivered by Davis, who entered the game as the league's leading scorer and shot blocker and near the top in rebounding. He finished with 26 points and 11 rebounds. Davis' game encompasses everything, an attribute Embiid hopes to garner someday.
Embiid's performance wasn't spectacular, though Brown pointed out he was a plus-27 in his 27 minutes, or even one that many are becoming accustomed to. But his presence certainly changes the way opponents view the Sixers.
"He's different than anybody that's been in this league in a long, long time," said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry. "I'm happy that he's healthy, but I wish this would have been the second game of a back-to-back. He's a tremendous talent. He really is. I've never seen a guy that size and with that kind of strength that has such a soft touch. He shoots the ball with the touch of Steph Curry. It's so soft when it leaves his hand. And then he can post up and (do) some of the things he can do down there because of his size and his skill level. He's really, really good."
In breaking the losing streak, Embiid was more focused on what needed to be done defensively.
"I think we are trusting each other more now," Embiid said of the Sixers' defense. "If someone is getting beat, you know someone has to have his back. Lately, we've been playing great defense, and that's how we got the win."
When the media were allowed to enter the team's shootaround Thursday morning, Nerlens Noel was on a training table getting stretched out. It is the first time this season Noel has accompanied the team on the road, a sign that his return to the court is imminent, perhaps as early as Sunday in Detroit.
The 6-11 center has been out all season after having a procedure done on his left knee in late October. On media day before training camp began, Noel let it be known he was not happy that the team still three players on the roster who play the same position - himself, Embiid and Jahlil Okafor.
Noel furthered those sentiments last week, but insists now he just wants to get back on the court.
"I think I'm in a better place," he said. "I'm only getting better and better. I'm in better shape and in a better mental place to come back and play basketball at a high level. There's always excitement to be able to play basketball after this amount of time, including the summer, not be able to play organized basketball at a competitive level. I've been looking forward to this. I think I've gained some momentum coming back from this. I'm feeling good with my body, and everything is on point.
"It means that I love myself and I love the game of basketball. When I step out here to come and play, it just brings a lot of enjoyment and excitement to me, regardless of what the details are. I just love the game, and I'm happy to be playing."
Coach Brett Brown hinted that Noel could make his season debut Sunday when the team plays in Detroit.
"It's good to have him with the team, studying a lot of tape, scripting with his teammates, with the understanding that we have the chance to see him soon," Brown said. "All that to try to ramp it up, so that he can go to an NBA court more comfortable."