INDIANAPOLIS — Sixers coach Brett Brown was asked again Tuesday night, before his team played the Minnesota Timberwolves, about the string of 12 tough games that lay ahead.
Never mind facing the Timberwolves. Reporters wanted to know if Brown felt the Sixers were mentally where he wanted them heading into the stretch against all playoff-caliber teams. With several new faces on the roster, the media also wanted to know if Brown worried that there would be finger-pointing if the Sixers lost three or four straight games.
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“It’s always on my mind,” Brown said before the Sixers routed the Timberwolves, 149-107, at the Wells Fargo Center. “But I feel that if we can forge forward on the things that we hold dear, defensive, the best connector of anything is, do you guard?"
By guarding and winning some games, Brown thinks the Sixers will have a better chance of holding things together. If they’re unable to do that, he thinks the character of the team will matter. So will his ability to do his job as leader and a coach.
“I’m not looking forward to any sort of, like, preemptive misery,” Brown said. “We are going to do our job. I got faith in the people around me that we are going to find a way to grow this as we should. Try to move it forward incrementally.”
But the Sixers squad, which already has chemistry issues, will learn a lot about itself during the stretch that begins Thursday and concludes Feb. 12.
Thursday’s opponent will be the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Then they’ll have a three-game home stand against the Oklahoma City Thunder (Saturday), Houston Rockets (Monday), and San Antonio Spurs (Jan. 23).
The Sixers will follow that up with a four-game road trip against the Denver Nuggets (Jan. 26), Los Angeles Lakers (Jan. 29), Golden State Warriors (Jan. 31), and Sacramento Kings (Feb. 2). And they’ll finish the grueling stretch with home games against the Toronto Raptors (Feb. 5), Nuggets (Feb. 8), Lakers (Feb. 10), and Boston Celtics (Feb. 12), before traveling to the New York Knicks (Feb. 13).
The Lakers (25-21) and Kings (23-21) are the only opponents during that stretch that aren’t at least five games above .500. And the Raptors (33-12), Warriors (30-14), Nuggets (29-14), and Pacers (29-14) are four of NBA’s top five teams, regardless of conference.
The Sixers were hoping to use their previous five games, all against losing teams — the Timberwolves, Knicks, Atlanta Hawks, and Washington Wizards (twice) — as a confidence boost for this coming stretch. But they had their ups and downs while going 3-2 in those games.
Brown acknowledged before the romp over Minnesota that the Sixers weren’t mentally at the level he would had wished.
“But I say that so everybody hears me clearly. It’s not anything that I’m panicking about,” he said. “It would be wrong for me to say after you lose to Washington and Atlanta and don’t sort of finish off the Knicks [in a close victory], like, you say, ‘Oh, yeah. We’re great.’ That’s not it.
“But when I look at it, it’s not anything that I’m really sitting back and saying that I’m worried about it.”
The Sixers have to feel better about themselves after what they did against the Timberwolves. They set three floor records in the victory: points scored (149), points in a half (83 before intermission), and assists (40). Their 42-point win marked their largest victory margin this season. The Sixers also shot a season-best 59.8 percent from the field and made a season-high 21 three-pointers.
“I think you are sort of never as good as you think you are and you’re never as bad as, at times, you think you are,” Brown said after the game. “Usually, somewhere in the middle is the truth.”
He’ll know more about that truth after this stretch.
There’s no mystery about what the Sixers need to do to get better. Brown must find a way for Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons, and Joel Embiid to blend together better on the floor. They also have to improve their defense.