The 76ers are 17-7, own the best record in the Eastern Conference, and are always talking about room for improvement.
They are playing with great self-assurance, but every team can use some extra motivation and the Sixers found that Sunday in a Sacramento hotel.
Preparing for a four-game road trip that begins Tuesday against the Sacramento Kings, the Sixers flew out Sunday and were able to watch the Super Bowl together as a team.
Who would have known that Bruce Arians, Todd Bowles, Tom Brady, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, following their 31-9 Super Bowl win over Kansas City, would be the group to inspire the Sixers?
“The Super Bowl kind of really inspired us to become a better defensive team,” Sixers center Dwight Howard said after Monday’s practice.
He mentioned how great Tom Brady and the offense were, but Howard said he and his teammates gravitated toward the defense.
“They were very physical and energetic and didn’t let the other team breathe,” Howard said. “I think the whole game it just seemed like [the Chiefs] were frustrated with how [Tampa Bay] played defense and I think we want to strive to be that way.”
It may not be Bucs-like, but the Sixers have been impressive in their own right on defense.
Entering Monday’s games, the Sixers’ 107.4 defensive rating (average of points allowed per 100 possessions) was fourth in the NBA. Now they will get to test themselves in a highly competitive environment.
To date, their strength of schedule was tied for the third easiest in the NBA with Miami. Entering Monday, the Sixers’ opponents had an average .470 winning percentage.
Now they embark on a road trip where all four opponents are above .500. Sacramento is 12-11, Portland 12-10, Phoenix 13-9, and Utah 19-5 having won 15 of its last 16.
“Every team that we face on this trip will provide us with a lesson that we’ll need heading into the second half of the season and even the playoffs,” Howard said. “I think these four games are very crucial for our success this year.”
First up is Sacramento, who has been among the more surprising teams in the NBA.
The Kings have won four in a row and seven of their last eight. In the past four games, point guard De’Aaron Fox is averaging 31 points and 8.8 assists as he makes a bid to earn a Western Conference All-Star selection.
After starting the win streak with a victory at New Orleans, Sacramento has beaten three quality teams at home: Boston, Denver, and the Los Angeles Clippers.
“They are back to playing at a pace that they had under [Dave Joerger],” said Sixers coach Doc Rivers, referring to his current assistant coach who was head coach of the Kings from 2016 through 2019. “[Head coach] Luke [Walton] and [assistant] Alvin [Gentry], they have done a terrific job putting them in position where they can score, so it’s going to be a tough game.”
Scoring never seems to be a problem for the Kings, but stopping the opposition has been a much greater challenge.
Entering Monday, the Kings were ninth in the NBA in offensive rating (112.3), even ahead of the Sixers who were 13th (111.4). The Kings, however, were dead last in defensive rating (116.8).
Six players average in double figures in scoring - Fox (23 ppg), Harrison Barnes (17.1 ppg), Buddy Hield (15.9 ppg), former Sixer Richaun Holmes (13.0 ppg), Marvin Bagley (12.3 ppg), and rookie Tyrese Haliburton (11.9 ppg).
So this should be a challenging stretch for the Sixers, who hope to benefit from their Super Bowl motivation.
“We use a lot of the Bucs quotes in our practices ... having that process and the preparation and at the end, a parade,” said Howard, who earned his first NBA title last season with the Los Angeles Lakers. “That is something we are striving for, to really have that parade in Philly.”