A sobering back-to-back

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.

Inside the locker room lately, after last night's loss to the Orlando Magic, before tonight's game, and after tonight's 100-97 loss to the Charlotte Bobcats, everyone on the Sixers seemed to think that these types of losses are just decided by "the way the ball is bouncing" or "karma" or "bad luck" or any number of such uncontrollable entities. And to some extent that's certainly true. All things being equal, you'll lose a tough one once, but you'll get it back later in this season. Things will even out over an 82-game schedule. But at this point for the Sixers, all things are not equal. Tonight, the Charlotte Bobcats noticed that Gerald Henderson was getting a clean look off a curl screen. And so they kept running it. Three times in the final two minutes. Henderson was scoring, and so they kept going to what was working. On the other side of the court, the Sixers surely knew on some level that Young had scored 13 points in the quarter, but for whatever reason that didn't seem like valuable enough information to actually translate forward to the next play. And that's not karma randomly impacting the game, that's a definite decision that affected the outcome. If the Sixers continue believing bad things are just happening to them, and they're not impacting these end-of-game issues, then there will be no improvement and it will continue to be painful to be a Sixers' fan.

In the end, this is an issue for the players themselves. I'm sure there are certain moments Doug Collins wishes he had back (maybe foul Austin Daye before he gets the three off, draw up a quicker play tonight with 26 seconds left, reiterate to Jrue Holiday not to foul John Wall in Washington), but there has to be someone on the floor who decides that the end of games can be better controlled. If you look at Holiday toward the end of games, this is one of the glaring holes in his game. He's not controlling the game at game's end. He's playing the game like it's an AAU game and he'll just look up at the score when the buzzer goes off. But Holiday is clearly a smarter player than that. And it will come with time, and more games, amd more painful outcomes like the one tonight. But Holiday can be that guy. Think how different some of these outcomes might have been if he didn't take a bad shot with 1:30 on the clock, or waste 15 seconds on the shot clock without even knowing what play he wants to get the team into, or if he was proactive about getting everyone together before free throws and talking through the final possessions remaining and what the team would do in various situations. We're not seeing these things right now. And it's showing on the scoreboard.

So, ultimately, what we're saying is, in quite a roundabout way, the Sixers are improving, but they're missing this last piece of maturity and concentration that will make them the most productive team this roster can be. They are getting better. They are talented and they are playing well together and they have finally put themselves in a position where learning this last crucial piece actually matters. Because it didn't last season. They've come so far that it actually matters how they finish games. It seems that Sixers fans could have lived with a loss tonight if it came with poise and execution: Iguodala hits his free throws and Young gets a well-executed look at the basket. Sure, the Bobcats could have still won with Henderson hitting those jumpers, but at least you could have gone to sleep knowing the Sixers played it right down the stretch.


(Video below is of Iguodala after the game and if you want to follow on Twitter, click here: Deep Sixer.)

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