When reminded that the 76ers’ next five games — and nine of their next 12 heading into the All-Star break — are all at home, coach Doc Rivers quipped, “I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”
It is one of the great mysteries of the Sixers’ season. A hallmark of this era had been how they had morphed into a juggernaut at the Wells Fargo Center, where they thrived off a raucous crowd that intimidated opponents and then joyfully sang along to “10 … 9 ... 8 …76ers” on its way out the door.
The Sixers’ road record during the same span, meanwhile, was so-so, at best. Yet the results have completely flipped this season. The Sixers are 17-9 away from the Wells Fargo Center after Sunday’s 115-109 victory in San Antonio, but just 10-10 inside their home arena.
The dramatic shift is befuddling to Rivers and Sixers players. They also recognize the next three weeks offer the best chance to recreate the momentum of seasons past.
“We’ve got to use this opportunity to kind of get back to what we used to be,” All-Star center Joel Embiid said. “… We’ve got to use these next couple games to kind of regain our home advantage.”
The Sixers’ 17 road victories were tied with the Brooklyn Nets (17-5) for second in the NBA entering Monday. Only the Western Conference-leading Phoenix Suns (18-5) had more. Conversely, the Sixers’ 10 home wins were fewer than any team in the East except for the lowly Detroit Pistons (7-14) and Orlando Magic (3-17) entering Monday.
The Sixers already have more home losses than they totaled in each of the last two seasons, when they went 29-7 in 2020-21 and an NBA-best 31-4 in 2019-20. Though both of those seasons were shortened because of the COVID-19 pandemic, their 10 home losses are also equal to the number they accumulated during the entirety of the traditional 2018-19 season (31-10).
Sixers fans this season have witnessed Embiid’s 50-point masterpiece against Orlando, Matisse Thybulle’s lockdown defense that prevented Steph Curry from becoming the NBA’s all-time three-point shooter, and the drubbing of the Atlanta Hawks in the teams’ first meeting since last season’s playoffs. But the Sixers’ two biggest collapses — surrendering a 10-point lead with about five minutes to go in their home opener against Brooklyn and blowing a 24-point second-half advantage to the Clippers on Friday — also occurred at the Wells Fargo Center.
“We haven’t played well at home. We really haven’t,” Rivers said. “It’s something that hasn’t happened in the past. But it’s happening now, so we have to turn it around.”
When asked for an explanation on why teams can have drastically different results at home and on the road, Embiid acknowledged, “It doesn’t make sense.”
Backup center Andre Drummond added, “That’s a great question. I’ve never understood why that’s a thing.”
Yet some Sixers could better articulate the reasons for the road improvements than the new home struggles.
The Sixers went 12-26 away from home in 2019-20, a mark that standout forward Tobias Harris called “trash” and “awful.” His new coach in Philly agreed. On the first day of training camp last season, Rivers said he was “as frank as you can ever be to a team you don’t know.”
“I basically said, ‘We are disgraceful on the road, and there’s no excuse for that,’” Rivers said. “… We talked about it. Guys gave their opinion. I wasn’t buying any of them. I really wasn’t.”
The Sixers went 20-16 on the road during a condensed 2020-21 season, during which players and staff were primarily isolated in team hotels while following strict league-mandated COVID-19 protocols. This season, players have described building camaraderie at team dinners while also increasing the focus on each game plan.
“It just seems to be … that we are more together, because we’re playing on the road,” Embiid said. “... It’s all about us. We’re all we have.”
The bulk of the Sixers’ most inspired efforts this season have been on those trips. They beat East-leading Miami in overtime on the second night of a back-to-back a little more than a week ago, without primary wing defenders Thybulle and Danny Green to match up against the Heat’s perimeter stars. They won at Brooklyn hours after Rivers went into health and safety protocols, lifting assistant Dan Burke to his first career victory as an NBA head coach. They held Atlanta to nine fourth-quarter points in a comeback victory in early December.
An initial stats comparison also does not offer much reasoning for the difference between the Sixers’ home and road performance.
Their offensive rating entering Monday ranked ninth in the NBA on the road (110.7 points per 100 possessions) and 13th at home (111.5 points per 100 possessions), while their defensive rating was 11th in the league on the road (107.9 points allowed per 100 possessions) and 12th at home (109.5 points allowed per 100 possessions). There were similarities in field-goal percentage (46.2 on the road, 46.1 at home) and rebounding (42.8 on the road, 41.7 at home). The Sixers actually turn the ball over less at home (11.9 per game) than on the road (12.7 per game). The biggest gaps are in three-point shooting, where the Sixers rank 20th in percentage at home (34.2) and fifth on the road (36.5), and in free-throw attempts, where they are 13th at home (21.2 per game) and third on the road (22.2 per game).
However, the Sixers are considerably better during clutch time — which the NBA defines as when the score is within five points with five minutes or less to play — on the road. They are 10-4 in such games away from home, with an excellent defensive rating (92.5 points allowed per 100 possessions) in 54 minutes that ranked second in the NBA entering Monday and an offensive rating (127.5 points allowed per 100 possessions) that ranked fifth.
Conversely, the Sixers are 4-8 in such games at home, with a dreadful 87.3 offensive rating in 49 minutes that ranked 29th in the league and a 114.3 defensive rating that ranked 20th. Much of that is because of the MVP-caliber play of Embiid, who has scored 30 or more points in 12 consecutive road games he has played dating to Dec. 6 and hit a bevy of crucial down-the-stretch buckets.
Though playing at home brings the intangible comfort of routine, familiar surroundings and less grueling travel, it can also lead to slight disengagement when players and staff go their separate ways after leaving the practice facility or arena instead of gathering on a bus to go back to the team hotel or plane. Embiid also wondered if some teammates become “frustrated” when the passion of Sixers fans transforms from supportive cheers to agitated boos.
“It doesn’t affect me, but I’m sure it affects other people,” Embiid said.
Getting healthier would also benefit the Sixers as they begin this homestand. They have played the last two games without four out of their five top perimeter players who have been in the rotation this season: Thybulle (shoulder), Green (hip), Seth Curry (ankle), and Shake Milton (back).
This home-heavy stretch begins with Tuesday’s matchup against New Orleans, a game rescheduled following a Dec. 19 postponement when injuries and COVID-19 health and safety protocols left the Sixers without the mandatory eight players required to face an opponent. Notable matchups during this period include the sputtering-yet-intriguing Lakers (Thursday), the streaking Memphis Grizzlies (Jan. 31) and Suns (Feb. 8), a Cleveland Cavaliers team jockeying for similar playoff positioning (Feb. 12), and the rival Boston Celtics (Feb. 15). The worst opponents on the docket are the 18-30 Sacramento Kings (Saturday) and 14-32 Oklahoma City Thunder (Feb. 11).
After the All-Star break, the Sixers’ schedule is an even split of 12 games at home and 12 on the road. They won’t play more than three contests in a row inside or outside the Wells Fargo Center.
That’s why the next three weeks represent the Sixers’ best opportunity to recapture that home magic.
“Before the season, if someone told you you had the road record that we have, I think every team in the NBA would sign up for it,” Rivers said. “… We now have to go home and start doing it. If we can put those two teams together, then we’re gonna be pretty special.”