It was the 76ers’ fourth consecutive loss, their longest losing streak since December 2017, but Brown said he liked the way his team competed by pulling within five points in the fourth quarter.
“I like the spirit of our group,” Brown said.
It was a stark contrast to his comments after the Dec. 27 loss to the Orlando Magic that started the long road trip and losing streak. That day, Brown dismissed a comment about the Sixers’ late rally, saying it was “hollow praise to go there.”
Brown’s praise Friday night rang hollow in the 76ers’ locker room, where players acknowledged the frustration that was often evident by bad body language displayed on the floor during their loss to the Rockets.
“Losing four in a row sucks, and it doesn’t feel like we’re getting better,” two-time All-Star center Joel Embiid said. “So it is frustrating. … I care about winning. It’s taking a toll on me. All I care about is winning. It sucks. We’ve got to find a way. I guess we’ve got to keep fighting.”
The Sixers have sunk to sixth place in the Eastern Conference with a 23-14 record after losing seven of their past 10 games. They haven’t won since a convincing victory over the East-leading Milwaukee Bucks on Christmas Day, matching the injury-ravaged Brooklyn Nets for the league’s longest active losing streak.
“We’ve just got to stay locked in,” said point guard Ben Simmons, who stuffed the box score with 29 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists, 4 blocks and 3 steals in the loss. “We can’t be too distant from each other. We’ve got to be a team.”
Brown acknowledged that Philadelphia recently has lacked a sense of urgency. He said he reminded his team after a practice this week that “you don’t just click your heels” when the playoffs begin.
The Sixers started Friday’s game with energetic, stifling defense, holding the high-powered Rockets to 20 points in the first quarter and leading by as much as 10 points during the frame.
Then Houston superstar James Harden heated up, scoring 14 of the Rockets’ 40 points in the second quarter. The Rockets never relinquished the lead after going up on a Clint Capela dunk with 7 minutes, 43 seconds remaining in the second quarter, when Houston’s big man beat Embiid down the floor after a made free throw. It was a play that illustrated the Sixers’ inconsistent effort.
Harden ended up recording his first triple-double of the season with 44 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. He delivered seven dimes to Capela, who outplayed Embiid, scoring a season-high 30 points and grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds.
Asked about the Sixers’ poor body language, Brown blamed it on the offensive brilliance of Harden, the NBA scoring leader who was 13-of-24 from the floor, 6-of-12 from 3-point range and 12-of-12 on free throws.
“Probably they were discouraged,” Brown said. “It’s hard guarding James Harden. You can ask them about it.”
The Sixers players, however, pointed to their disjointed offense. Philadelphia has averaged only 104 points per 100 possessions during the losing streak, a figure that would rank in the bottom five of the league for the season.
The Sixers’ poor spacing is of particular concern, especially for Embiid. Sources say that the Sixers will search the trade market for perimeter shooting threats with playmaking ability, a need that was apparent as Philadelphia went 6-of-27 from 3-point range Friday night.
“The way I’m being guarded, I’m being doubled every time I have the ball and everybody crowds the paint, so it’s kind of hard to just move the ball and just keep it moving and find ways to score,” said Embiid, who scored 20 points on 7-of-17 shooting.
Small forward Tobias Harris, who had 24 points on 8-of-18 shooting, said the Sixers’ offense is too often stagnant.
“We have to figure out a balance of how to [combine] all of our talents together on the floor,” Harris said. “I just think what helps that is if we continue to move more on the floor, continue to make plays for one another and do the little things for our teammate. That’s something that we have to get better at, and that’s something we have to fight through. We have a lot of talent, but at the same time, we’ve got to all figure out how to mesh our talents together and make it work for the better good.”
Brown insisted that he wasn’t concerned about the morale of the Sixers, who have fallen five spots in the East standings over the past three weeks.
“Because I think they’re smart enough to know that we have talent in that room and that it’s a good league,” Brown said. “Losing in Houston is no disgrace. Good days will add up. I think the character will prevail.”
The Sixers sounded like a desperate team as they prepared to head back to Philadelphia, where they will have two off days before facing an Oklahoma City team that has won eight of its past nine games.
“We’re frustrated, but we know we’ve got to get better,” Simmons said. “I think everybody, I believe everybody is on the same page with that. So we look forward to OKC. We’ve got to get that win.”