Game Preview | In Home Stretch, Brown Continues to Set Tone

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Sizing Up the Sixers (28-47):
In assessing the progress the 76ers have made this season, Brett Brown prefers not to view success exclusively in terms of wins, never mind that his team has 19 more victories to its credit now than it did this time a year ago.

Instead, he points to another concept less quantifiable – the culture surrounding the Sixers. So highly does Brown value this idea that, at times, he admits guilt about invoking the “c” word in respect to the current state of the Sixers.

But when asked to explain Wednesday how the Sixers, with eight players available that night, managed to take the Atlanta Hawks, a potential top-five seed in the Eastern Conference, down to the wire (in the finale of a back-to-back set, no less), Brown went straight to the culture factor. He attributed it not only to the Sixers’ admirable efforts against Atlanta, but other top-tier opponents this year.

“You’re always measuring yourself against, obviously, the league’s elite, but also the East’s elite,” said Brown. “You beat Toronto [in January], a really good team [currently fourth in the East]. You beat the Celtics [earlier in March], really good team [currently first in the East]. You look at some of these wins that we have had recently, and you look at the roster has done it.”

Yet another tall test comes Friday, when the Sixers visit Cleveland.

Certainly, the Sixers have seen fortunes change amidst effective defense and ball-sharing, two of Brown’s biggest schematic points of emphasis. Culture, though, according to Brown, has been a key ingredient to this season’s turnaround too, perhaps more significant than all the others.

Since his hiring in August of 2013, Brown has prioritized shaping and molding the Sixers into a group that is tough, resilient, and blue-collar – all characteristics that could be strongly associated with the team’s fanbase in Philadelphia, and the greater Delaware Valley.

“The city is tough,” Brown said Wednesday. “The city has hardness about it that we want to replicate. We want our style of play mirror the personality of the city.”

How often have you heard Brown make a comment like that? It’s a regular part of his lexicon.

The personality profile Brown alluded to in respect to Philadelphia also fits the man himself. A native New Englander who grew up in South Portland, Maine, the 56-year old conducts his own business in a similar fashion. He works hard, is perpetually determined, refuses to make excuses, and sets a hard-nosed tone in salt-of-the-Earth fashion.

The Sixers’ persistence during this latest shorthanded, road-heavy stretch has only served to further underscore the trickle down effect of his trudge-ahead-no-matter-what attitude.

“He’s always big on the next guy up kind of mentality,” said Nik Stauskas, a key reserve shooting guard who has been thrust into back-up point guard duties in the absence of Sergio Rodriguez (left hamstring). “A lot of guys being hurt, a lot of guys being out, everyone comes out ready to play. The way [Brown] motivates us, everyone’s just ready to go.”

Implicit in Stauskas’ remarks is that Brown, based on his outlook, principles, and own DNA, is a (arguably ‘the’?) primary driving force behind the Sixers’ spirit. The head coach would likely reject the notion that he alone is single-handedly responsible for fostering an atmosphere that has won the admiration of peers around the league, but his considerable influence in this area is hard to deny.

“It’s awesome having [a] coach who truly believes in you, and generally wants the best from his team,” Stauskas said. “Brett’s been behind us 100 percent, regardless of us winning or losing, regardless of whether people are hurt or healthy.”

This season marks Stauskas’ second with the Sixers, having landed with the organization in the summer of 2015 via a trade with the Sacramento Kings, which drafted him eighth overall the year before. As a rookie, the Michigan product played under three different coaches – Mike Malone, Tyrone Corbin, and George Karl. The previous two seasons, while in college, he learned from the respected John Beilein.

Brown, with seemingly endless optimism and passion, has stood out.

“He’s one of my favorite coaches I have ever played for,” said the 23-year old Stauskas. “The energy he’s able to bring, even when things aren’t as great as we’d like them to be, it’s been phenomenal. I spoke to the fact that last year, if you were to come in this locker room, you would never even think we were a 10-win team, just because he was able to keep the energy up so much. We really appreciate all that he gives to us, and love having him around.”

Whether it be in a pre-season exhibition, or game number 75 on the schedule, Brown’s mindset rarely wavers. How does he do it?

“Drinking a lot of coffee maybe, I don’t know,” Stauskas joked Wednesday. “It takes a lot, and he has a great deal of patience, and that’s what it takes to be a great coach in this league.”

Constantly keeping the long-view in mind, especially when putting the Sixers’ strides this season into context, appears to have served Brown – and the franchise – well. The individual growth of key prospects has steadily fueled an improvement reflected by encouraging collective results.

On some days, however, as Wednesday’s loss to battle-tested, veteran Atlanta demonstrated, headway can be achieved in certain ways, even if winning isn’t part of the final outcome. At least that’s how Brown and his players tend to see their own world.

“Each game that we play, we’re forming our identity being a team that plays hard, plays together,” said Richaun Holmes, the second-year big man who’s enjoyed a breakout second half of the season. “The winning culture starts to show as we get better, and start to face these teams.”

Sizing Up the Cavaliers (47-27):
These days, it might be tough to find a team more eager than Cleveland to see the calendar turn from March to April. The defending champions have gone 6-10 this month, and, along the way, slipped out of first place in the Eastern Conference standings.

Thursday in Chicago, the Cavaliers suffered their latest loss, 99-93. Cleveland led by as many as 11 points before spotting the Bulls 37 points in a game-changing third quarter. The Cavs have now dropped a season-high tying three consecutive contests for the second time in the span of four weeks.

What factors have been at the root of Cleveland’s recent troubles? Simply put, the club has seen its offensive production taper off, and its defense become less resistant. The Cavs’ net rating of -4.4 points per 100 possessions in March ranks as its lowest for any month this year.

On an individual level, March hasn’t been kind to Kevin Love. Since returning from a left knee injury in the middle of the month, his offensive output has been up and down. He began to experience soreness in the knee just before the All-Star break, and was forced to bow out of the competition itself.

Ranking second in the NBA with 37.5 minutes played per game, LeBron James also sits eighth in the league with an average of 26.0 points per game, and sixth with 8.8 assists per contest. Against the Bulls Thursday, he moved into seventh-place all-time on the NBA scoring chart.

Series History:
Heading into the finale of their three-game season set with Cleveland, the Sixers will get one last shot this year to snap a lengthy slide to the Cavaliers. The Cavs have taken each of the past eight meetings between the clubs, although the Sixers twice came close to upending the King and Co. earlier in the 2016-2017 campaign.

In a November 5th pairing at The Center, the Sixers used a 34-point third quarter to make a furious comeback bid, before ultimately falling to Cleveland, 102-101. Joel Embiid tallied 22 points, six rebounds, and four blocks that night.

Three weeks later, in a Sunday matinee, the Sixers dropped a 112-108 decision to Cleveland. Embiid again finished with 22 points, while Kyrie Irving netted 39.

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