At the Indianapolis Airport waiting for a return flight to Philly. And one of the few not wearing a Colts jersey.
Now that it's a few hours removed from last night's win over the Indiana Pacers, and now that there's some legitimate time to deconstruct the game and the game before it (that win over the Dallas Mavericks), let's attempt to do so.
The biggest thing about these two games was the lineup switch: In with Jrue Holiday and Elton Brand, out with Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young. This was a risky, mostly smart, dangerous move by Sixers coach Eddie Jordan. He alluded to the risk after the win over the Mavericks. The risk was losing Williams and Young -- forcing them to the bench and taking a chance on how they'll respond. This starting lineup is about as close to ideal as Jordan is going to get. Some people feel the starting backcourt should be Lou and Jrue (that opinion is held by me and, believe it or not, some others), while other folks feel the backcourt of Iverson and Jrue is ideal. There's not a huge difference in the pairings, only that Williams has a long-term contract with this team and earned the opportunity. But as for that opinion, we'll have to agree to disagree (just like Will Ferrell says in Anchorman) and move forward.
For anyone that watched the first few minutes of last night's game -- before Holiday went to the training room and got 12 stitches -- it was clear how effective the rookie is guarding the ball. Indiana's point guard Earl Watson couldn't go anywhere with Holiday guarding him. That's exactly why Jordan is starting Holiday. And it's helpful, almost like Holiday's playing defense for Iverson, too, because Watson couldn't even pass the ball with ease.
As for the move to re-insert Brand into the starting lineup ... as Brand said after the Dallas game: He's been playing well enough to start and he felt he deserved to start. Brand still seems a little frustrated at how Jordan has used him so far this year, always confused about starting vs. non-starting, playing in the fourth quarter vs. not playing in the fourth quarter. Even last night when he was sitting a chunk of the fourth quarter before Jordan re-inserted him, you could look at Brand and tell he was wondering if he might not check back in. With the way Brand was struggling in the first 20 games, it made sense to limit his minutes. With the way he's playing now (and 4 assists last night, what what), he deserves to play. And let's not overlook how Brand's play has taken a load of weight off Jordan's shoulders. He's making things much easier for Jordan because there's a guy to give the ball to and expect a score.
Jordan said something last night, before the game, about how the team has played 'decent' in the second third of the season. Let's say since that 12-game losing streak. Looking up the numbers, the team is 10-10, with a number of good wins and a number of really bad losses (Washington Wizards, Minnesota Timberwolves, Clippers, Knicks). That's what's making it tough to say they've turned a corner. If you looked at those 20 games and saw 8 wins over the teams they should have beaten and a couple of surprise, good wins, you'd really be sold that the team was back on track. You could look at tomorrow night's game against Indiana and be confident they'd win, then again at Milwaukee on Wednesday. Right now, it feels a little better, you'd be surprised if they lost tomorrow night, but until they put together a solid stretch of 10-15 games where this play is consistent (and maybe it started against Dallas), there's going to be some skepticism. And rightly so.
Last night, Conseco Fieldhouse puts media right along the baseline, about 10 feet from the Sixers bench. It's a nice view to try to understand how this team is reacting to Jordan, the game, everything. The lineup change is good, but it's still dangerous. You can tell from Williams, he's willing to let it roll as long as the team wins, but if it proves to just be a quick burst and then back to struggling, guys are not going to be pleased. The frustration is already there, and these two wins have brought the boil down, but in watching the bench last night, it's not far from the surface. When the Pacers cut the lead to 88-83 in the fourth quarter, you could see some guys sitting farther away from the huddle, towels over their heads.
Last night when Jordan removed Rodney Carney from the game in the second half (he played about 2 minutes, 30 seconds on the night), Carney walked about as slowly as you can to the bench, the look on his face was like why'd I even go in? His teammates watched him, some smiling. Maybe they knew the feeling.
Regardless, if this lineup continues to produce results, over a decent period of time, the Sixers have the talent to quickly pull themselves back into the playoff mix (not a difficult thing in the Eastern Conference). Here are some things to watch going forward.
1.) Brand's play. The Sixers have come to rely on getting him the ball on the block. He needs to continue to make that mid-range jump shot and be effective in his post-up moves. If he struggles, the Sixers half-court offense is going to become a lot of perimeter dribbling by Iverson and some difficult pull-up jumpers from the outside.
2.) The pick-and-roll defense. It must be said: The Sixers have improved significantly on this aspect of the defense. Opponents are struggling to get the ball quickly out of the guard's hands (because of the effective trap), limiting quick ball movement to the open shooter. It's not perfect. Last night the Pacers got about a dozen wide-open three pointers (and they missed too many to win the game), but they're having to work quite hard to get open shots. That wasn't the case earlier in the season.
3.) Andre Iguodala. He's become less and less involved in the offense recently. And while the Sixers don't need him to be the go-to guy all the time on the offense, you can tell Iguodala is frustrated. And while they don't need 20-plus points from him, they do need him for 40-plus minutes. He can't check out.
Time to board the flight; sorry for any grammatical mistakes. No time to proof read.