76ers failure to close out games compounds growing pains

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The 76ers limped into the All-Star break after blowing double-digit leads to the Los Angeles Clippers and Sacramento Kings.

At 8-45, the Sixers need a rest. They’ll get an extended vacation until next Friday, which is rare in the NBA.

This young group has been through plenty of growing pains. Two hard lessons were learned in the last two games at the Wells Fargo Center.

The Sixers need to figure out a way to close out a game.

In year three of the massive rebuild, wins have been rare – 45, to be exact since coach Brett Brown took over under the direction of general manager Sam Hinkie.

Despite the losses, Brown remains remarkably positive.

“Not one of us here could, I don’t think, look at our team, and not be so convinced we’re a lot different than we were in early December,” Brown said. “I think we’re a lot different than we were on December 26, even with the first arrival of Ish (Smith).”

How different?

“You see Jerami Grant blossoming right before everybody’s eyes,” Brown said. “You see Nerlens (Noel) and Jahlil (Okafor) doing a little bit better playing together. That pairing I think is growing. I think Nik (Stauskas) and Robert (Covington) are starting to come of age with that two-way commitment. All over the place I feel like there’s certainly growth.”

Noel and Okafor will have a chance for extended growth as part of All-Star Weekend in Toronto. But Noel was a late scratch against the Kings with right knee patellar tendinitis and his status for Friday’s Rising Stars Challenge is questionable. Okafor is expected to play.

“I think anytime you can go into a gym and sort of just see the mannerisms and demeanor and how other elite players and NBA All-Stars, how they interact with fans, carry themselves, I think there’s a disposition that those great players present with,” Brown said. “I think they carry themselves by and large with an element of class. I think for him to get up there is a good thing. I think he should enjoy the weekend and take it all in from that perspective as much as playing.”

Okafor had 26 points and 10 rebounds against the Kings while battling emerging All-Star DeMarcus Cousins.

Cousins ultimately helped his team to a road win, but Okafor tied his career high in scoring and showed tremendous growth in his overall game.

“I think Okafor has very good footwork and has (great) small man skills in a big man’s body,” Kings coach George Karl said. “Obviously, he’s having statistically a very strong season. I think every week or every 10 games it seems like he’s becoming more influential and more responsible.”

Their record may not reflect such strong growth, but the players are gaining confidence. You can see it. The evidence is clearly there.

“I would agree with that,” Smith said. “I feel like we’re a new and improved group even in the past week. Every day, we’re getting better. This is a group that wants to succeed in every way imaginable. We won’t ever stop pushing. These last two losses have been rough. We’re going to come back strong and fighting for everything.”

The second half of the season – rather, a 29-game sprint – will begin next Friday at New Orleans. It won’t be easy. Nothing comes easy to the Sixers. They’ll be there ready to work.

“No doubt,” Stauskas said. “We’re going to keep putting in the time. We have to. We are seeing results even if the wins are coming along as easily. We have to keep pushing and pushing and scrapping and … we’ll continue to improve.”

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