If telling it like it is means telling the bad when it's bad, then it means telling the good when it's good. And, right now, there's no more doubt: it's good. If you're not excited about this team, which tonight beat the New York Knicks 100-98 and has a record of 20-13 in its last 33 games, then you're never going to be excited about this team. You should stop reading now.
We've been tentative all season long because a 3-13 start will scare some people. Couple that start with last season's record of 27-55 and it doesn't take a genius to understand why the seats have been empty in the Wells Fargo Center and minds have been closed toward discussions of revival. But then this strange thing happened. Even though the team started 3-13, it didn't come apart at the seams. So we watched, cautious, wondering if the bounce back was just temporary, if they'd stumble once again and start showing the immaturity and frustration and then, eventually, start losing again. If, despite his best efforts, Doug Collins would be unable to penetrate the minds of this talented, but previously aloof roster.
But even through the ridiculous losses (which might not necessarily be out of their system, one never knows), the 76ers played hard and solid and kept winning their share of games. Even the most skeptical among us might not be as skeptical as Andre Iguodala, who has for years seemed only willing to give so much of his emotion (as compared to physical effort, which he always gives) toward the winning effort. At some point in the last two weeks, Iguodala has bought in. He's made this his team, not just the team he plays on, and you can see the results on the floor. Did you see him tonight? He had 16 assists and 0 turnovers. Here's a crazy statistic that I was relayed tonight: since the NBA started keeping turnovers as an individual statistic (sometime in the 70's), Iguodala's 16 assists is the most assists in franchise history without a turnover. Dishing out 16 assists and not turning the ball over is amazing and remarkable, about as infrequent as tossing a no-hitter in baseball. A really good assist-to-turnover ratio in the NBA is 3-to-1. Tonight, Iguodala's was 16-to-0. That statistic is really just a byproduct, it seems, of some sort of switch that has changed with Iguodala.
We're as wary as anyone of falling into this once-a-year trap of proclaiming that "Iguodala is embracing his role as leader!" We heard it last year, we heard it the year before, we heard it the one before that. And by each of those seasons' end, you really couldn't say for sure that he had. This doesn't feel like previous years. This feels different. For starters, in the fourth quarter of tonight's game, Iguodala could not have been any more excited after each of Elton Brand's jumpers. He was the first to punish Brand with (what looked like) an intense hi-five. Given his reaction, you'd have thought Iguodala had scored, not Brand. At one point when the Knicks cut the lead to six points, Iguodala took the inbounds pass in front of his own bench, turned upcourt and just absolutely busted to the rim for a layup. We've never seen that before. Is it really that easy for him? It looked that easy. And that was a monster basket for the team, pushing the lead back to 8 points. In seasons' past, or even earlier this year, doubtful that Iguodala executes that play. But tonight, his team needed a basket and he took off. That's all there was to it.
After his 33 points tonight, is it time we all apologize to Elton Brand for declaring his best days were behind him? He'd probably be happy just if the topic were never again raised. His effort has always been there, but now the game is following. Having these two guys -- Iguodala and Brand -- on the same page while leading this team is really crucial to maintaining success because they've never seemed so in sync.
It would be easy to say the Sixers don't deserve fans' attention because they're not the Boston Celtics or the Miami Heat or the Chicago Bulls. And in the NBA it doesn't matter unless you're one of these teams. What's the point, right? Well, it's also really easy to be a fan of any of those teams right now because winning is the norm and losing happens every once in a while. The Sixers are not cured of what ails them. They have a question mark in the middle, they have some rebounding issues, they have some end-of-game issues (tonight's game shouldn't have even come down to a final shot), but Doug Collins has done precisely what he said he would do: make this team one you can be proud to root for every night. Have you ever seen Lou Williams work harder on defense than he did during tonight's fourth quarter? He was actually reach stepping over the top of a screen to stay in front of Raymond Felton. Pretty sure that for the last few years he's just run into that screen and then watched Felton make a layup. The fourth quarter started and the Sixers didn't make some crazy adjustment to get back into the game, they just worked harder than the Knicks.
If the Sixers were a stock, buying now would be buying low. Because they're on their way up. And that's something we couldn't imagine writing three months ago.
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