Constant losing is wearing Noel down

Sixers guard Ish Smith drives to the basket as ex-Sixer JaKarr Sampson defends for the Nuggets. The Sixers lost a heartbreaker on Emmanuel Mudiay's buzzer beater.
Sixers guard Ish Smith drives to the basket as ex-Sixer JaKarr Sampson defends for the Nuggets. The Sixers lost a heartbreaker on Emmanuel Mudiay's buzzer beater. (Associated Press)
Posted: March 25, 2016

DENVER - All the losing has been tough on 76ers fans. It's been tough on coach Brett Brown and rookie Jahlil Okafor and some in the front office. It's been tough on the team's trainers and ticket sellers and announcers and, well, most who care about the team.

For Nerlens Noel, it's been excruciating.

"Yeah, I'm human. So it's tough," Noel said Wednesday before the team's 104-103 loss to the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center. "I can't lie about that.

"Sometimes it's tougher than other times. When you feel that it starts affecting you personally, you do your best to try to make it turn [in the right direction]. But it's been a long year, especially this one, and dealing with a lot more [losses.]"

The latest loss was especially dispiriting. Emmanuel Mudiay made a 35-footer at the buzzer to stun the Sixers.

The second-year center, who missed the game with a right knee contusion, can't hide it anymore. His face is worn with disappointment. His voice is wistful as he laments his sense of failure. Losing, he said, is not something he ever was used to. But now he is.

The Sixers possess a 9-63 record coming out of Wednesday's loss to Denver. That comes one season removed an 18-64 finish. The Sixers also went 19-63 in 2013-14, the season Noel sat out to rehabilitate his left knee.

He expected the team to be further along this season, not take a major step backward.

"I think this year I had to deal with a lot more than I have the past couple," he said. "It has been the toughest year for me this year.

"I think I've done the best possible [job] just staying uplifted and continuing to play my game no matter what circumstances, whether playing out of position or doing things that I wasn't comfortable with."

To Noel's credit, he has not publicly complained about sliding to power forward at the start of the season to accommodate Okafor. Nor did he come close to having a frustration-laced tirade as the losses mounted.

Instead, Noel was critical of himself when he didn't make shots or was unable to grab a rebound or close out on a particular defensive play.

The loss to the Boston Celtics on Sunday was a prime example. Afterward, Noel stared at nothing in particular while seated at his locker. That came after he finished with four points on 2-for-8 shooting to go with eight rebounds, two steals, two turnovers and one block before fouling out in 24 minutes.

Seeing the state of one of his cornerstones, Brown gave Noel a hug without saying a word to him.

"I'm with him, and he hurts," the coach said. "You can feel the pain. He feels like he lets himself or the team down when he doesn't play at the level [he should]."

Noel is averaging 11.1 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.5 blocks. His shooting percentage of 52.5 percent ranked ninth in the NBA heading into Wednesday's games.

His shooting percentage could be higher. However, he has attempted some shots beyond his skill set when the Sixers go away from the high-ball screens and variations of pick-and-rolls they successfully ran in late December and early January.

"I'm saying they are uncomfortable shots, but there's times when you know we play against a couple of teams that like to pack the paint especially," he said.

Noel has been the subject of critics when his shots don't fall. What they don't know is that he's his hardest critic. That and the mounting losses are the reason it's getting harder for him conceal his frustration.

"I obviously don't like to lose," he said, "and I don't like to be embarrassed and I don't like to be shown up in any type of way. . . .

"When things don't go right, it does bother me for a little while and I do what I can to get through it."

Ref shortage

Because Denver International Airport was shut down by a snowstorm, there were only two officials - Sean Corbin and Derek Richardson - for the game. Referee Rodney Mott could not get to Denver.

kpompey@phillynews.com

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