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Nurse feels ‘soft approach' contributed to Sixers' terrible first half vs. Pelicans

Nurse feels ‘soft approach' contributed to Sixers' terrible first half vs. Pelicans originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Sixers had nothing good to build on when they walked into the home locker room at halftime Friday night.

After trailing by as many as 35 points to the Pelicans in the second quarter, all logic suggested they were sliding to a third consecutive shorthanded loss.

“As a coaching staff, you do your thing,” Sixers head coach Nick Nurse said. “You show ‘em: ‘We talked about doing this, we walked through this. This is what we’re not doing.’ And then show ‘em a few other things, and you say, ‘You’ve got your choice here. You either quit or you tighten up your shoes — and you get out there and you start fighting.’ And at least they tightened up the shoes and started fighting.”

The Sixers indeed played hard after intermission, cutting New Orleans’ lead as low as five points in the fourth quarter before falling to another defeat at Wells Fargo Center.

That was better than more of the same, although Nurse had much to criticize from Friday’s first half. While a frigid outside shooting start made the Sixers’ performance look even worse, he wasn’t inclined to cite anything related to randomness or luck.

“I think we came into the game with what I would consider a soft approach,” Nurse said, “because we took six or seven threes out of our first eight possessions. Now, a couple of them were wide open. … But there were a bunch of dribble-up ones that we were at least moderately to heavily contested, and that’s not good enough.

“You’ve got to play tougher than that. You’ve got to put your nose in there, drive it in the paint, try to get to the foul line, or draw some defense and kick it out to somebody that’s open. So I thought we had a soft mentality on offense. We tried to jump shoot our way to a lead early, and you can’t count on that. And then we didn’t execute the defensive schemes. Not a very good combination.”

Tobias Harris, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mo Bamba all missed guarded three-pointers during a drought in which the Sixers were stuck on five points. None of the attempts were egregious in isolation, but the Sixers definitely did not make New Orleans’ defense work much.

Truly uncontested shots aren’t easy to come by these days for the Sixers. Offensive hubs Tyrese Maxey (concussion) and Joel Embiid (left knee meniscus procedure) were two of their five players out vs. the Pelicans. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Sixers rank 26th in defensive rating outside of garbage time and 21st in offensive rating since Embiid’s injury.

“We just aren’t reeling anything back, right? It just seems like the list keeps getting longer every night,” Nurse said of the Sixers’ injuries. “That’s not easy for anybody’s mentality or psyche but again, no excuses. There’s some good players out there that need to play a heck of a lot better than they did.”

Both Nurse and assistant coach Bryan Gates threw their hands out in obvious exasperation after Pelicans star Zion Williamson laid the ball in on the first half’s final play.

Harris shaded Williamson toward his right hand but Paul Reed defended the pick-and-roll by stepping out to his left. He sliced through the Sixers’ defense.

“Like Coach said after the game, we’ve got to be stable and at our best with the game plan … especially defensively,” Harris said. “If we can do that, I think that’ll put us in a better position for these games.”

Oubre also thought that Nurse’s points about failures with game plan fundamentals rang true.

“Coach emphasized a couple things today in the pregame meeting,” he said. “It was just like, ‘Do five or six things that we talked about in the game plan, and do them really well.’ And stop trying to hit home runs or do everything at once because once we start over-thinking, especially with the group we have out there now, it’s never good. We’re always over-helping … or over-something, right?

“It’s just about locking in, being game-ready from the tip, and executing for 48 minutes on those things that Coach puts his time in to tell us. It’s like a cheat sheet. We have to actually do those things and execute them at a high level — everybody.”

With 19 regular-season games left, the Sixers are seventh in the Eastern Conference standings. They’ll start a two-game mini-series Sunday at Madison Square Garden against the fourth-seeded Knicks, who went 2-0 this season in Philadelphia.

“At the start of all this — even before Joel’s (latest) injury, when there were other minor bumps and bruises that he was sitting out for — I was telling you guys that I’m in super evaluation mode,” Nurse said. “I want to see who can execute what we’re going to need to execute when we get our people back.

“I’m still doing that. I think I’m scrutinizing things pretty hard here. So that’s the positive side of it. Learning a lot right now.”