76ers: A lucky break or a breakthrough performance?

Let's cut to the chase here. The 76ers are worth watching. It didn't exactly come out of nowhere -- there were some decent performances in losses at the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat -- but it did, kind of, catch you a little by surprise.

You can say whatever you want after tonight's win over the Orlando Magic. You can say they only won the game because Orlando was short-handed -- and that would be a valid opinion -- but there's no arguing the kind of defense the Sixers played tonight. With or without Rashard Lewis, with or without Vince Carter, the Sixers played every defensive possession with focus and energy. Sitting there watching them -- as I've done for two full seasons prior -- I  assumed the rotations would eventually suffer, that the team would break in the third quarter, or give up, or allow Orlando a flurry of open three pointers. But they never did. Sure, there were occasional breakdowns and an open shooter, but those were on broken possessions. When the Sixers were in their set defense, it was entertaining to watch. And it was effective.
"Our defense was so good tonight," said Doug Collins. "Scrambling, trying to make Dwight Howard work hard for all of his baskets and our guys rotated ... so many contributions from so many people."
After tonight's game, Collins pointed out an in-game interaction. He said he'd sent Elton Brand and Spencer Hawes to the scorer's table with about 8 minutes left. During that time, Marreese Speights hit another jumper and Brand went to Collins and requested that Speights stay in the game because he had the hot hand. Collins seemed to think this was an indication that what he's been preaching, i.e. teamwork in every moment and pulling for one another on the floor, was really sinking in.
Needless to say, this is probably not an anecdote we'd have heard last season. (And for more reasons than just because Hawes wasn't on the team then.)
So, yes, you can look back at the Sixers previous 11 games and come up with reasons why they've won eight games: the teams weren't that good, the Portland Trail Blazers have injuries, the New Orleans Hornets are overrated, the Magic were short handed, they had a bunch of games at home, etc., etc., etc. But the reality of tonight's game was that the Sixers played harder and better than the Magic, shorthanded or not. In past years, Orlando would be able to win this game on the strength of Dwight Howard alone.
Here on this blog, we've tried to be the first to point out when guys aren't in the right positions, when the team is selling out early in games, when the substitutions don't seem to match the game's needs, but right now -- watching intently all 48 minutes tonight -- we have not seen better defense in two and a half seasons. The offense is still dependent on guys hitting open shots (calling Jodie Meeks), but even on that end of the court there is execution and a pattern to what is happening.
This eight-game road trip is now one game old and the Sixers have started 1-0. It's a grueling, daunting eight games, and the Sixers need to come out the other side with at least a few wins. Three more wins on this road trip would make it a success, four more would make it great, and five more would make it unbelievable. The remaining seven games: Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers, and New Orleans Hornets.
Are there three more wins in there? Maybe four? Could they snag five?
Be sure to check out the video embedded below of Doug Collins' post-game. Also, as always, please follow on Twitter, through which all content flows: Deep Sixer. Tomorrow's edition of the Inquirer will have the weekly "Inside the Sixers" colum and this one dives inside the team's improving defense. Be sure to check it out. One last thing: If you want to check out our post from earlier today, including an abbreviated "On the Road" video, you can find that here: On the Road.
So go ahead, let's hear it, the Sixers aren't actually good at all, this is just the end of a weak pocket in their schedule ... or, maybe, the unthinkable -- what you see is actually reality, the Sixers are pretty good.

Each week, Kate will check in from the road and answer fan questions about the Sixers. Click here to ask Kate a question or e-mail her at kfagan@phillynews.com.

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