The Sixers lost an ugly one Monday night. They were outplayed by the lowly Phoenix Suns and booed for the first time this season by their home crowd.
A lot of things went wrong during the game. The defense was all over the place, the shooting was cold, the Suns capitalized on costly turnovers, and Devin Booker went off for 46 points. The Sixers weren't themselves. They're better than that.
But one thing stood out as a consistent eyesore on the stat sheet. The Sixers committed 22 fouls against the Suns — a high number, but not abnormal.
The Sixers lead the league in fouls per game, averaging 23.8. Not the stat you want to lead the league in.
"It's a point of emphasis with our team: fouling and turnovers," guard JJ Redick said after the 115-101 loss to Phoenix. "That, I think, is what is holding us back from becoming elite."
Redick might be right. No team has averaged more than 23 fouls per game and made it to the Finals since the Utah Jazz in 1997-98. The Jazz lost that series to the Bulls. The Sixers aren't expected to reach the Finals this year, but they do intend to make the playoffs, and the eventual goal is a championship.
An NBA team has not won a championship while averaging more than 23 fouls since the 1989-90 Detroit Pistons. You might be thinking, "So you're saying it's possible." Well, no. If the Sixers played today the way the Pistons did in 1990, half the team would be ejected before halftime.
"It's something that we have to get better at," Sixers coach Brett Brown stressed Monday night.
Brown added that it's not just the number of fouls but also the timing of them. The Sixers are fouling shooters a lot and they're fouling when teams are in the bonus, sending them to the line for free points. Sixers opponents average a league-leading 27.2 free-throw attempts and make a league-leading 20.9 of them.
Maybe most important, though, is that the Sixers thrive when they are running in transition and pushing the ball. All that changes when they're committing a high number of fouls. The game slows dramatically, and the Sixers aren't at their strongest in that type of game.
Then comes the frustration, as it did against the Suns.
Jerryd Bayless, charged with his third foul with 32 seconds left in the third quarter, waved off the official before sharing some choice words. He was quickly handed a technical foul.
Booker hit the technical free throw and then made one of the two shots he was granted from the original foul, as the Suns were in the bonus. And the momentum quickly shifted from the Sixers' previous possession — when Joel Embiid made a great move around Alex Len for a dunk — to the Suns' continuing to pile on points.
As with most of the Sixers' flaws, they know the fouls are a problem. They talk about it often.
Whether it's youth, growing pains of a newly formed team, or a discipline problem, the fouls must go down before the Sixers can go up.