We said in yesterday's chat and blog post that last night's game against the Houston Rockets was important. It's hard to pinpoint exactly why some games seem to carry more weight than others, why they feel like the season might shift one way or another depending upon its outcome. For instance, while I thought a win over New Orleans would have been great, I didn't think a loss was more than just that -- one loss, move on to the Houston game.
But going into the Houston Rockets game, it felt important because:
1.) A loss would have meant back-to-back losses, and three losses in four games. This might be nothing more than a hiccup for another team, but with the way the Sixers started this season, they can't afford even week-long stretches of returning to bad play. I think of them like they are a recovering mediocre team: They must guard against slips back to mediocrity, just like when recovering from anything else. How easy it would feel, looking up at the scoreboard and trailing by 15 (or, in last night's case, 14) and thinking to yourself, "Ah, yes, this feels familiar."
2.) The 76ers needed to start, slowly but surely, putting the Elton Brand worries to sleep. I'm as big a culprit as anyone: worrying that incorporating him won't be a seamless transition. Let's face it, it's not going to be. It isn't. It hasn't been. But Sixers fans want him to succeed, right? They want that low-post presence, they want someone who will play defense (Brand has done that), try to run in transition (he's doing that) and be an option down low (we saw some of that last night). And so last night's game couldn't be another 22 minutes for Brand without making an impact. It just couldn't be. We saw how furious the Brand ship-jumping was after the game against the New Orleans Hornets. The Sixers couldn't afford to elevate that distraction. And, for Brand's sake -- he is a hard worker who has said and done all the right things since becoming a Sixer -- he needed to contribute to a good victory. Not a victory over the Washington Wizards or New Jersey Nets (the Sixers next two games).
And the 76ers did win. Even if it seemed improbable for most of the game. Here are a few observations:
1.) Samuel Dalembert was AWESOME. I'm aware I put that word in all caps. That's what he was. He was all-caps awesome. His effort, his defense, his blocked shots, his rebounding: It was awesome. Sixers don't win that game without Samuel Dalembert. Not a chance. Poor Sammy, though, now he's got as all pining for that kind of performance every game.
2.) Can we stop talking about how Andre Iguodala "disappears down the stretch"? This was untrue even before last night. He was the guy who tied the game against the Dallas Mavericks last Monday with 8.5 seconds left. He was the guy who missed at the buzzer against the Indiana Pacers at home. He was the guy called for traveling against the Denver Nuggets on the road. Look, he may make mistakes down the stretch, but he never disappears. He never hides in the corner and gives someone else the ball (even if sometimes I think Lou Williams should have it instead of him). You might have been shaking your head when he clanked that awful jumper with six or seven seconds left last night (I was). But he wanted the ball, and he took the shot. And he hit one of the biggest shots of the game to push the Sixers lead to four at the end. Of all nights, this would have been a night Iguodala could have disappeared. He looked really bad in the first half. He was throwing alley-oops off the backboard and the rim, he was not noticing defenders and throwing bad cross-court passes, he was generally not very good.
I guarantee he will miss many more end-of-game shots. He will probably have many more crucial turnovers. But each time he takes the ball in that position, he's building a foundation towards becoming a guy who can often convert that key play.
3.) Marreese Speights has to play 12-15 minutes a game. At. A. Minimum. Tony DiLeo has to find these minutes. Find them from somewhere. Carve them out of nothing, for all Sixers fans care: Just put this kid on the court.
4.) Elton Brand is good! Let's not forget. He's a good player. He's makeing a concerted effort not just to avoid hindering the running game, but becoming an asset to the running game. The block he made in transition at the end of the first half was important. It kept the score 51-45. There is a big mental difference between 6 and 8. If you're down six you think "Two three-pointers." (Perhaps not with the way the Sixers shot this road trip, but typically.) If you're down eight you think, "Basically we're down 10." Don't ask me why this is the case, it just is.
I know Friday's opponent -- the Washington Wizards -- are technically an NBA team, but there is no way the Sixers should be anything but above .500 (23-22) after this game.