The 76ers are now 2-9 in games decided by four points or less. They started the season 0-7, snagged two close games in a row, and have now lost back-to-back games in crunch time. What's the truth about this team? Do they have no clue what they're doing in the final few minutes? Are they learning? Are they improving? Did they just stumble into a couple of made plays against Milwaukee and Charlotte at home? Why does it have to be this painful to be a Sixers' fan? (OK, that was a low blow.)
No matter how much it seems the Sixers are improving, and they are, make no mistake about it, we have to keep going back to something Doug Collins said earlier in the season. After those pair of excruciating losses to the Washington Wizards, Collins was talking about his team's basketball pedigree. To paraphrase, he said that many players on this team come from more of an AAU background (not four years in a college program) and their play toward game's end reflects that background. They exhibit very little maturity and understanding of time and score and pace and play. This no-conscience style benefits the Sixers in various situations. If they're down 15 in the second quarter, you can believe they have no concerns about that. They'll just keep racing up and down and try to pile up points. This can help them get back in games they probably shouldn't get back into. But toward the end of games, there are very few players (read: none) on this team with consistent experience in leading a winning team, not just making plays for the team that happens to be playing. Right now the Sixers have players, in fact really good players, but they don't have winners. That's what it looks like when you're watching. They have the players to win games, but they have no one capable, willing, and ready to lead this team to victory.
Recently, we've seen Andre Iguodala try to exhibit a little bit of end-of-game leadership. Multiple times, he's been seen pressing his palms downward, talking to a teammate, letting them know it's time to settle down. Iguodala understands time and score, he does have a high basketball IQ (Wednesday night's foul not withstanding), and he could be a great selection to step up and earn some victories for this team by slowing things down when they need to be slowed down and talking things through with some of the younger guys. The problem is, as we saw tonight, there are too many times when he compromises his own ability to lead. It goes without saying that if a player is going to be the unquestioned leader of a team, he must step to the line and make free throws at critical times. Obviously, we're not saying 100 percent of the time, not even 90 percent of the time, but so often that when you see him walking to the line, you're feeling confident. If Iguodala falters at crunch time, as one of the team's most experienced players, how much weight will his instructions and demands hold going forward? Tonight, Iguodala shortarmed the final of three free throws, the last of which could have tied the game, and the Sixers were never really able to get themselves another good chance. Of anyone on this team, Iguodala is primed for this role. His teammates respect him because he always passes to the open man, always, and that's not a very common attribute in the NBA. But right now there seems to be a built-in excuse for not getting it done, instead of just getting it done.
The guy who could have won the game for the Sixers tonight was Thaddeus Young. But Thaddeus Young is not going to demand the ball and take it to the rim if that's not what's being designed. He's just not that kind of guy. So where's the on-court point guard (whether it be the actual point guard Jrue Holiday or just the guy who understands what should be happening at game's end)? If the thousands of Sixer fans watching the game knew that Young was the guy to go to, how can it be that the professional players on the court don't understand this? If Holiday is in touch with the flow of the game, or if Iguodala was going to really exhibit some leadership, the ball would have found Young in the game's final 1 minute, 50 seconds. Because it was Young who gave the Sixers a 91-90 lead, but that was the last shot for Young.