Few would have thought at the beginning of the season that a game in the first week of January would be so crucial for the 76ers. But after losing four in a row and seven of 10, Monday’s home matchup with the surging Oklahoma City Thunder has taken on the utmost importance.
Just ask forward-center Al Horford.
When asked after Sunday’s practice if the team’s confidence has taken a hit, he replied: “I don’t think our confidence has taken a hit, but we’re desperate, we have lost four.”
Desperate on Jan. 5? After all, the Sixers still have a respectable record -- 23-14, following Friday’s 118-108 loss at Houston.
“[Monday], we understand it is a huge game for us,” Horford said. “The good thing for us is we are at home, and that will be a good way to get back on track.”
The Sixers are 16-2 at home and 7-12 on the road, where they suffered all four of the losses in their current skid.
They continue to say that things will be OK, that they are learning to play with one another in a lineup featuring two new starters, Horford and Josh Richardson.
Last week, coach Brett Brown said he thought his players were coasting through the regular season. Joel Embiid made a reference to needing Ben Simmons to shoot more from the outside. All season, Horford has talked about becoming more comfortable with spacing when he and Embiid are on the floor together.
One can logically ask: When are these situations all going to be rectified? Or can they be?
At this point, this is clearly a Sixers team that is searching for answers.
Brown’s stated deadline that this team would be a cohesive group by Christmas has blown by.
“We are in a place that you wouldn’t have wished, for sure,” Brown said after Sunday’s practice. “But do I feel like I am especially worried? I am not.”
Maybe he should be.
The good thing is that this is the NBA, and teams go through their ups and downs. But the problems that the Sixers have talked about since the preseason still exist today.
Horford, Brown, and Richardson all talked after practice about how they are seeing positives, but they haven’t been shown lately on the court.
Brown continues to talk about players knowing their roles.
“This is a team, and all teams have to sacrifice, and all teams have a great clarity of role recognition delivered by me," Brown said. "This has been said so many times, and will continue to be said, and we will evolve as a group.”
The key question is: How long will these Sixers be given to learn their roles?
Will it be done by the time the playoffs roll around in mid-April? Or the other question is, can the Sixers, the way they are constituted, be a team that can advance farther in the playoffs than the previous two years when they were eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals?
Lots of questions, with the answers not so easy to come by.
The Feb. 6 trade deadline is a month away, and whether the Sixers can get it together before then remains to be seen.
The Sixers do need some help off the bench and it would be surprising if that aspect wasn’t addressed at the trade deadline. But is this a starting lineup that can jell the way the team had envisioned in the preseason?
At the least, the Sixers didn’t expect to be in a desperate situation as the calendar turned to 2020.
After the Thunder, the Sixers host the Boston Celtics on Thursday. Maybe the narrative of desperation changes with two wins.
But neither should be easy to come by. Oklahoma City (20-15) has won five in a row and nine of 10. And while Boston has lost both meetings with the Sixers, the Celtics are 25-6 against everybody else.
Brown and the players have pointed out how the Sixers looked like world-beaters on Christmas Day in their 121-109 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
That was the last time they won.