After a 1-3 road trip against some of the Western Conference heavyweights, the 76ers are expected to fatten up on a less demanding part of the schedule, with six consecutive games against teams that entered Sunday with a sub-.500 record.
The first of those teams was the Charlotte Hornets, coming off a home loss on Saturday to the lowly New Orleans Pelicans.
Despite playing the second of back-to-back games, the Hornets posed a bigger threat than expected.
Trailing, 58-53, at halftime, the Sixers led, 88-81, after three quarters and continued the momentum by scoring the first seven points of the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 114-106 win over Hornets at the Wells Fargo Center.
With reserves in for both teams late in the game, Charlotte cut the deficit to 111-106, but the Sixers then finished with three free throws by Trey Burke in the final 16 seconds.
The Sixers (6-3) snapped a three-game losing streak.
Still, the Sixers remain a work in progress. If they are expected to be among the elite in the Eastern Conference, not to mention the NBA, the bar has to be higher.
Chief among the worries is the turnover department. The Sixers committed 21 (leading to 26 Charlotte points), while forcing 13.
“This is what I tell the team. Until we can fix that, this is a house built on sand, this is fool’s gold,” coach Brett Brown said about the turnovers. “We have to find a disciplined and a better way to control that.”
Charlotte (4-6) used a heavy dose of zone defense, daring the Sixers to shoot from the outside. The Sixers’ Furkan Korkmaz was among those who obliged.
Korkmaz has been one of the early-season revelations for the Sixers. Now in his third season, he scored a career-high 20 points in last Monday’s 114-109 loss in Phoenix.
Against Charlotte, he scored 17 points off the bench, shooting 7-for-14, including 3-of 8-from three-point range.
“Teams are playing zone defense, and I am mostly getting open threes and trying to find threes,” Korkmaz said.
The Sixers played their second straight game without All-Star point guard Ben Simmons, who is out with a sprained right shoulder. Simmons will be re-evaluated on Monday to determine his availability for Tuesday’s home game with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Raul Neto started in Simmons’ place and, while not flashy, enjoyed a solid floor game. He finished with nine points, four assists, and two turnovers
What really hurt Charlotte was its inability to match up inside with the Sixers.
The starting frontcourt of Joel Embiid, Al Horford, and Tobias Harris totaled 47 points and shot a combined 19-for-28 from the field. Embiid, who declined comment after the game, had team highs of 18 points and nine rebounds.
Center Cody Zeller led the Hornets with 24 points.
Even though the Sixers struggled, they did move forward when they put their mind to it.
“We got a little comfortable and didn’t play with the same sense of urgency we needed to, to end the half,” said Horford, alluding to the fact that the Sixers were outscored by 17 points in the final seven minutes of the second quarter. “In the third [quarter] the message was to come out strong, set the tone from the beginning, get back in the game. We got a couple of stops on defense and that got us going.”
Against a team like the Hornets, the Sixers can get away with playing in spurts. They still seemed tired from playing four games in seven days out west.
Part of the fact for the lack of consistent crispness it that newcomers like Horford are still finding their way in the Sixers system.
Right now, the Sixers are at the stage when even a win over the Hornets isn’t taken for granted.