Despite the absence of superstar rookie Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers improved to 18-29 . Meanwhile, DeMarcus Cousins and the Sacramento Kings slipped to 19-29.
Earning a third win in the last week without the services of Embiid while avenging a December road loss, Philly finds themselves in unfamiliar territory. With only 5.0 games separating the red, white, and blue from the seventh-placed Chicago Bulls (24-25), people are actually starting to use the word “playoffs” in the same sentence as the Sixers. The Kings have been in the conversation out West, but Denver is dialed in right now, 7-3 in the last 10 (21-25 overall) with Nikola Jokić performing like a man possessed.
At this point, only the most diehard Kings fan would suggest that Sacramento has a better long-term outlook than Philadelphia. There’s barely any light at the end of the tunnel, the glimmer of hope being that the Kings somehow hold onto their first round draft pick and nab the steal of the 2017 NBA Draft (or make the playoffs and ascend into basketball heaven by beating the Dubs).
Monday was an extremely demoralizing night for the Sacramento Kings, and I’m curious as heck to see how they respond. Losing a game in which you held a 16-point lead is never fun, and tends to sting more when the opposing team is missing its best player.
It was all smiles on the Sacramento sidelines early on, as Boogie went off for 18 points in the first quarter. Cousins and others on the bench shrugged and smirked together when Jahlil Okafor turned their way after sinking a fall-away jumper on the baseline. The squad clapped for Willie Cauley-Stein, who finished with an impressive 17 points (on 8-of-10 shooting) in 20 minutes. However, a push to finish the second quarter put the 76ers within seven points at halftime, and the third quarter saw the Sixers explode for 42 points to take a lead they’d never relinquish heading into the fourth quarter.
Foul trouble plagued Cousins for much of the game, as he managed just 32 minutes before picking up his sixth personal. On the other hand, Philly’s Nerlens Noel was called for five fouls in his 25 minutes. Personally, I had no problem with the officiating until down the stretch in the fourth quarter when it became a whistle-blowing and free-throw shooting contest. At least two of Noel’s fouls were downright horrible – and the sixth on Cousins was arguably the worst. Perhaps the officials saw the replay and realized it wasn’t the best call, because they allowed Boogie to throw a mild temper tantrum thereafter without administering a technical. Speaking of which, Cousins now has 13 technicals, so he’s only three away from facing a one-game suspension.
Almost immediately after Cousins fouled out, Vlade Divac left for the locker rooms. Apparently he didn’t get the memo about Philly struggling to close out games that appear to be in their back pocket. A couple crazy turnovers and three-pointers later, and the Kings had 4.9 seconds to close the three-point deficit. A defensive miscommunication allowed Arron Afflalo a wide-open look in the corner. Clank. You could see the loss wash over Boogie’s face, and in that moment it was hard not to feel for Sacramento.
Things I Love
- How hyped Wells Fargo Center has been lately. Even forgetting the level of dormancy during the previous few seasons, 76ers games have been lit in January, a month in which the team won as many games (10) as they did all of last year.
- How human DeMarcus Cousins is. Last time he stopped into town, he hilariously commandeered a mop from the Sixers’ staff and proceeded to get to work on trying to dry the hardwood. When it was clear the game was going to be postponed because of a melting court, he stopped and signed autographs and greeted fans before heading back to the locker room. On Monday, he warmly acknowledged fans who shouted in his direction. He isn’t the perfect defensive centerpiece, but a rare talent who deserves to play for a good team one fine day.
- Dario Šarić and Philadelphia’s infectious passing. The Croatian scored 17 points, but also dished six dimes and threw a no-look bullet pass that sent the crowd into a frenzy. It’s as if the spirit of Ben Simmons is out there already. TJ McConnell is averaging more assists (6.2) than points (5.7), Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor both hit TJ on beautiful backdoor cuts, and Robert Covington made an unbelievable full-court touchdown pass to Gerald Henderson to beat the third-quarter buzzer.
Things I Loathe
- As I alluded to earlier, the officials seemed to sort of take over the game down the stretch. It’s an exceedingly difficult job, judging what is and what is not worthy of a foul. My issue with NBA officiating in general is that sometimes it seems the slogan is “when in doubt, call a foul,” until the final possession, and then it’s time to swallow the whistles. I’m not saying the answer is simply to make less foul calls. Officials need to call it as they see it and keep the contest under control by reinforcing the rules. But I think refs should focus on reversing the trend that is predicting or projecting a foul before it happens, and instead try assuming the opposite: that it’s likely no foul will be committed.
- Vlade Divac leaving early with Peja Stojaković (or his doppelgänger). As a rule of thumb, I do not leave sporting events early. Should everyone be held to this standard? Probably not. But when you’re the GM of an NBA franchise, you ought to at least pretend you believe the team you’ve assembled can come back from a small deficit in the final minute.
- Okafor’s lack of overall progress and the apparent lack of plan for developing him. The Sixers were outscored by six during Oak’s 22 minutes on the court, compared to Noel’s +9 in 25 minutes. That’s a 15-point swing. Okafor has been dealing with some injuries, and he appeared visibly gassed and out of shape at several junctures. My main beef, besides his defensive effort, is watching him rack up DNP-CD’s. There are millions of reasons for owning a D-League team, and this is absolutely one of them. If Jahlil really was talking trash to the Kings bench in the second quarter after a made basket, perhaps he needs to be humbled by a trip to the D-League. While watching Embiid and Noel operate on defense might be akin to going to class for Okafor, I can’t help but wonder how much better off he’d be honing his skills for the Delaware 87ers on nights when Joel and Nerlens are both active (and eating up all 48 minutes at center). This Kings game perfectly encapsulated Okafor’s NBA career thus far, as he scored 15 points but gave up twice as much (or more) on the other end.