We’re in the middle of the challenging five-game, West Coast swing that we’ve talked about for a few weeks. Before the 76ers left Philadelphia, on paper, there looked to be one win in these five games: against the Los Angeles Clippers.
On Friday, because of the absence of Carmelo Anthony and poor play by the Denver Nuggets, the Sixers looked to have a surprising win. But, even with that 17-point lead in the third quarter, anyone who has watched this team this year knew it would be a one-possession game down the stretch. And it was. And, because of the superior crunch-time play of Chauncey Billups, the Nuggets won a game they shouldn’t have won. The Sixers lost a game they shouldn’t have lost. This, unfortunately, is becoming familiar.
Let’s take a few minutes to evaluate what happened against the Nuggets before looking forward to tonight’s game against the Utah Jazz.
1.) Andre Iguodala. He played well (24 points, four rebounds, four assists … four turnovers). But it will be the last of those four turnovers that people will remember and harp upon. Mostly because we’ve seen this last-second play from Iguodala before. In the Sixers last home game, against the Pacers, Iguodala had the ball on a clear-out play at the end of the game. Against the Pacers, he got into the lane and missed a difficult left-handed shot. Against the Nuggets, Iguodala got into the lane, dragged his pivot foot, and was called for a travel. It’s interesting: Even when Iguodala plays a strong game, as he did against the Nuggets, he just can’t tie it together on that final play. Here are my thoughts: I don’t think Iguodala should have the ball on that play. I think Lou Williams should have the ball. Why? That’s Williams’ game. We saw it on the previous play when he broke down his defender, got into the lane, and made that nice loft pass to Marreese Speights, who made a basket for the go-ahead points.
I say all the time that Iguodala makes this team run, but that does not always mean he is best suited to make that final play. Those situations are Williams’ forte.
2.) More Lou, More Speights: They are playing very well right now. Lou and Speights are the off-the-bench firepower that have allowed the Sixers to be in a few games lately they might not have been. I like how Lou is being aggressive, yet passing the ball when necessary. What we saw at the beginning of the year was over-aggressiveness, an inability to finish his shots, and a lack of making those around him better. It’s hard to not be frustrated by losses to the Pacers, then Celtics, then Nuggets (two of which should have been victories), but Williams’ play (sort-of) eases that frustration.
Also on the plus side, Speights has the best player efficiency rating (PER) of all rookies. Yup, better than O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love, Derrick Rose, Greg Oden. Right now Speights plays about 14-16 minutes a game. I think we all know he needs to be on the court even more.
3.) Three-point defense; Free-throw shooting: It’s always something, right? Finally the Sixers shot decent from the three-point line (5 for 12) from the floor (49.4 percent) ran in transition (18 fast-break points) and created turnovers (22 for the Nuggets). And yet they lost? This is exactly the formula the Sixers having been saying would be victorious: trapping defense, running in transition. But then they miss crucial free throws. Speights’ miss on the three-point play was tough. Iguodala missed three. Lou missed four. It almost feels – okay, it does feel – like they don’t know how to win. Giving up 15 three-pointers? At some point you have to say to yourself: Okay, they’re not beating us with another trey. But those mental changes weren’t made. And that’s frustrating to watch.
4.) Tony DiLeo: I can’t disagree with much from DiLeo. His rotations have made sense. His in-game coaching has made sense. Aside from giving the ball to Williams for one crucial possession against the Nuggets (good decision), then taking it out of his hands and giving it to Iguodala for the next crucial possession (questionable), his coaching has given the Sixers every possible chance to win games.
I know that Nuggets game was the 26th, but it still needed to be discussed. It seemed this road trip was on pause in Colorado, as the Sixers stayed in Denver for two days to practice before heading to Utah.
Which brings us to tonight’s game against the Jazz. Again, the Sixers will be the beneficiaries of injuries. Yes, they have their own (Elton Brand’s shoulder), but the Jazz are facing a slew of injuries: Carlos Boozer is still out. His replacement, Paul Millsap, who has been playing well in his absence, sprained his PCL and will miss seven to 10 days. Second-leading scorer Mehmet Okur has missed Utah’s last two games with back spasm. This is a depleted Utah front line.
I would anticipate the same Sixers starting lineup that DiLeo went with against the Nuggets: Andre Miller, Willie Green, Iguodala, Thaddeus Young, and Samuel Dalembert.
This game is important. I’d be crazy to say it’s more important than any other game (because they’re all worth either one win or one loss, right?), but let’s really look at what’s at stake.
If the Sixers lose this game, drop to 12-18 – having dropped two games to injured teams – come back from this road trip at 13-20 (assuming wins over the Clippers, losses to the Mavericks and Spurs), then try to re-incorporate Brand into the rotation upon return, things are going to continue to be disjointed. That record – 13-20 – looks daunting.
If they can win this game, catch a little momentum; maybe knock off the Mavericks after the Clippers, return 15-18, that seems more respectable. 15-18? That’s almost like knocking on the door of .500 … which is still where I feel this team should be.
A win in Utah is manageable. Here are the keys, in my opinion.
1.) Samuel Dalembert. He needs to have a double-double. If he has a double-double, I believe the Sixers will win this game. He needs to play smarter. How many times can you foul somebody then look incredulously at the referees? He can’t give DiLeo a reason to put him on the bench. It seems the Sixers’ staff is already looking for a reason to take him off the floor. With the Jazz missing key front-line players, there is no reason Dalembert shouldn’t dominate. He should dominate (and for Dalembert, “dominating” would be a double-double).
2.) Andre Miller. Distribute the basketball in transition. Against the Nuggets, Miller hit two very important baskets in the last three or four minutes.
(Let’s not even discuss that absurd – in my belief – technical foul called on Miller at the end of the Nuggets’ game. What Miller did, stand in front of the free-throw shooter to slightly delay the shots, is done all the time. The problem that I see is that call was the result of an entire game of talking to the referees. Not just by Miller, but by a lot of the Sixers. Sometimes being in the referee’s ear all game grates on him. Miller said as much after the game. He said the referee wouldn’t really give him an explanation, but was probably fed up with how much the Sixers had talked to him all game. I think it would be a step in the right direction for the Sixers to stop talking about the refereeing and focus on defending the three-point shot and making their free throws. Okay, back to Miller …)
He’s returning to Utah – the site of his college glory – and I think if he has 8-plus assists that will mean Iguodala is scoring, Willie Green is scoring, and Thad Young is scoring.
Overall thoughts: The Sixers have played more exciting, better basketball the last two games. They looked good for about two quarters against the Celtics (it was 37-37 in the second quarter), and they looked strong against the Nuggets for much of that game. It’s too late in the season to take another step backward. They cannot allow Utah to run them off the court tonight. The season is more than a third over. The excuses for “getting better” and “a work in progress” no longer fly. Utah is missing key players. The Sixers, I believe, should win this game.