The Philadelphia 76ers battled like an honest-to-goodness NBA team on Friday. They came back from an 11-point deficit with a furious 22-6 run, and held a seven-point lead over James Harden and the similarly scuffling — to whatever extent anybody's scuffles can be considered similar to what's transpiring in the City of Brotherly Love, that is — Houston Rockets with 6 1/2 minutes in the fourth quarter.
From there, though, as it has so often throughout the past couple of seasons, the tide turned against them, with the combination of Harden's persistent march to the free-throw line and Philadelphia's own inability to reliably generate offensive opportunities conspiring to doom the Sixers yet again.
Harden scored 14 points (2-for-4 from 3-point range, 8-for-12 from the free-throw line) in the final 6:41 of the fourth quarter, while the 76ers managed just 10 points on 2-for-9 shooting, as the Rockets escaped with a 116-114 win that dropped Philly to 0-17 on the season. Combine that with the 10 consecutive games the Sixers lost to close the 2014-15 season, and you've got an ignominious bit of history that extends beyond the borders of basketball and into the broader realm of the great wide world of sports:
The #76ers have now lost 27 consecutive games dating back to last season -- the longest losing streak in U.S. professional sports history.
— SportsCenterAllNight (@SCAllNight) November 28, 2015
Philly entered Friday tied with the American Association's Louisville Colonels (1889), NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1976-77), Cleveland Cavaliers (2010-11) and, um, themselves (2013-14) for the dishonor of owning American professional sports' longest-running losing streaks. After its 27th consecutive defeat, spanning two seasons, this year's model of the 76ers now stands alone.
Well, there's something to be said for earning a place in history, we suppose.
Harden finished with a season-high 50 points on 14-for-28 shooting (6-for-12 from 3, 16-for-20 from the stripe) to go with nine rebounds and eight assists in leading the Rockets to just their second win since the firing of head coach Kevin McHale 10 days ago.
It's the third time Harden's hung half-a-hundred for Houston, all coming this calendar year, giving him the most 50-point performances in Rockets franchise history. And yet, despite Harden's late-game takeover and what interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff told reporters after the game is "a growing belief in that locker room that [the Rockets' players] can do the things needed to win," the fact that the Rockets needed every last one of Harden's 50 points and the full 48 minutes to beat a historically bad Sixers club didn't exactly inspire a remarkable renewal of confidence among fans.
"Ultimately the Rockets outplayed and overpowered an inferior opponent despite a rash of turnovers and careless offensive movement," wrote Max Croes of Rockets blog The Dream Shake. "[...] Anyone watching the game didn't come away thinking of this as anything more than another awful performance."
And yet, even that can be enough to beat this version of the 76ers.
Philadelphia produced its best offensive performance of the season behind strong outings from former Rocket forward Robert Covington (a career-high 28 points on 7-for-12 shooting from the floor, 6-for-9 from 3-point land, 8-for-9 at the line, to go with eight steals, seven rebounds, five assists and a block in 38 minutes), former Rocket point guard Isaiah Canaan (23 points) and forward Jerami Grant (18 points). But with top defensive big man Nerlens Noel sidelined by a knee injury, the Sixers still managed to squander a fourth-quarter lead for the fourth consecutive game.
Philadelphia now sits one loss shy of yet another ignoble mark — the most consecutive losses to start an NBA season, set in 2009 by the 0-18 New Jersey Nets — and they'll be considered heavy underdogs for Sunday's visit to the Grindhouse to take on a Memphis Grizzlies club that's won six of eight to right the ship after a rocky start.
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Sixers head coach Brett Brown continues to search for the right lineup combinations and favorable matchups that might trap lightning in a bottle. Thus far, though, he's been unable to coax consistent-enough positive two-way play from a roster light on talent and heavy on mistake-prone youth to get his team over the hump. From Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Inquirer:
"When you start studying numbers and figure out who matches up well, this is one of the hardest groups I've ever had to manage," Brown said. "It might be the greatest responsibility of a coach, learning how to pair people and sub people and put them where they can do well individually and find the best groups that can coexist. We're trying to figure out two bigs in Nerlens (Noel) and Jahlil (Okafor), trying to figure out who's the point guard. All that is a work in progress, and I think that Isaiah has shown that, paired with Jah, another stretch-the-floor-type of player is on the floor. And anytime you have Jahlil Okafor, you need shooters. Gut feel tells you that; your instincts tell you that; and the numbers behind it, the analytics, say it, also."
One hopes that Brown's ceaseless search gets rewarded soon. For one thing, we can't wait to hear about how that fruit-basket handoff goes. For another, though, we'd like it if Philly fans presently suffering through one of the saddest cross-sports stretches in recent memory got some momentary respite from the ongoing joylessness of playing the nail in a nightly fight with a hammer, as described by Michael Baumann at Sixers blog Liberty Ballers:
[...] it's hard not to feel persecuted, as if God is punishing me for some previous transgression by visiting these Sixers, like a plague, upon me. They fell behind early in this game--as they often do--only to stage a comeback after I'd checked out emotionally. Comebacks are no longer in service of victory. They're in service of making defeat that much more painful. [...] It was hard work to come back from 15 down in the third quarter to up seven in the fourth, but once they did, it only served to make James Harden angry and whip the partisan Rockets crowd into a frenzy. It's like experiencing an agony so acute it makes you pass out, and then being revived for the express purpose of experiencing more pain.
Maybe Noel and Okafor find a way to mesh on the court; maybe Joel Embiid eventually gets healthy and proves to be everything talent evaluators believed he could be; maybe Croatian forward Dario Saric becomes the type of playmaking wizard who elevates teammates; maybe Kendall Marshall and Tony Wroten are, in their disparate ways, exactly the creators this roster needs to find a rhythm; maybe Sam Hinkie's unending roster churn eventually turns up another shooter or two capable of making post-entry passes and holding onto the ball. The contemporary 76ers' entire organizational philosophy and roster-building strategy has been predicated on the principle that today's pain will produce tomorrow's rapturous pleasure.
The more losses like Friday's we see, though, the harder it must be to believe that the suffering's going to stop, that a change is going to come, and that this approach will lead to anything other than more agony ... and more history with which you wouldn't want your name associated.
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