MIAMI – Focus.
It was the No. 1 thing 76ers coach Brett Brown said Friday morning that he wanted to see from his squad in that night’s game against the struggling Orlando Magic at Amway Center.
Brown thought his team’s "defensive focus” mirrored the game plan that allowed it to beat the elite Milwaukee Bucks on Christmas Day at Wells Fargo Center.
“So the challenge will be to replicate that as a much as we can,” Brown said. “For me, we are starting the middle third. You got daylight."
Brown calls the middle third of the season as the first game after Christmas to the final game before the All-Star break in February.
“We love playing at home," said Brown, who’s focused on getting home-court advantage in the playoffs.
The focus during the middle third is on “anything and everything we do needs to be driven on moving up the food chain and how do we try to secure home court as much as we can in the playoffs.”
He added that it starts with the Sixers’ defense.
But if we learned one thing Friday night, Philly might lack the focus needed to secure home-court advantage.
How else can you explain their 98-97 loss to the 14-18 Magic two nights after routing the Bucks, the league’s best team?
One could argue that the Sixers are the NBA’s biggest underachievers. They lack consistent focus and play down to the level of their opponent. Oh, the Sixers will come to play against an elite squad in a nationally televised game. Yet, they’ll go through the motions against inferior teams, which has led to a few embarrassing losses.
Here’s proof: The Sixers are 23-12 after Saturday night’s 117-116 loss to Miami Heat. They have a 6-3 mark against the Eastern Conference’s top teams, the Bucks (1-0), the Heat (1-2), the Boston Celtics (2-0), the Toronto Raptors (1-1) and the Indiana Pacers (1-0). Yet, the Sixers had horrible road losses to losing teams like the Phoenix Suns, Washington Wizards, and now twice to the Magic. In all, they’re 7-10 road record.
It’s mind boggling that for an elite team, the Sixers aren’t always focused, especially on the road.
Right now, they look like guys who depend heavily on their home crowd’s energy. They’ve also admitted to underestimating teams, which is dangerous anywhere you play.
One has to assume that they’ll be locked-in during their next two games on the road.
After an off-day in Miami on Sunday, the Sixers will stay in the city and practice Monday before flying to Indianapolis. They’ll face the Pacers in a 3 p.m. game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on New Year’s Eve. The Sixers will head home after the game. Then they’ll fly to Houston on Jan. 2 to face the Rockets the next day.
The Pacers were 21-12 and in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, just behind the fifth-place Sixers. The Rockets have the Western Conference’s fourth-best record of 21-10 heading into Saturday’s home game against the Brooklyn Nets.
So the Sixers won’t have any perceived easy games.
Maybe that’s a good thing for a squad that plays to the level of its opponents.
But even if they do win both games, they’ll be more locked in every game. That’s the only way they’ll be in position to get home-court advantage in the postseason.
The top four teams get home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The conference’s second-place team gets home-court through the first two rounds. The team that finishes atop of the conference standings will get home-court advantage all the way through the Eastern Conference Finals. And they’ll be assured of home-court advantage through the NBA Finals if they finished with the league’s best record.
Despite their inconsistency, the Sixers are 2 ½ games behind the second-place Heat in the East. So it’s still possible to at least nab the conference’s second seed with 47 games remaining in the regular season.
“We need it,” Ben Simmons said of the importance of getting a top-two seed. “The fans play a big part. So it’s good to have a home-court advantage.”
But will the Sixers sustain the “focus” needed to covet that top-two seed?