In a game that could -- no, should -- have put the Sixers (5-6) above .500 for the first time this season, the Sixers defense looked weaker than the Eagles running game.
Last night, the Sixers lost 102-96 to one of the NBA's worst teams: The Minnesota Timberwolves (2-8). If you watched the game, or took a gander at the numbers, it's clear this game was lost on three fronts: The defensive end of the floor, free throw shooting, and outside shooting. The Sixers shot 47.1 percent from the floor, outrebounded the Timberwolves 40-33, and commited only 15 turnovers (we say 'only' because the Sixers recorded 27 turnovers in a loss at the Miami Heat two weeks ago). Decent numbers. Numbers that should have been good enough to beat a Minnesota team that earlier this season lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder. If you attended the Sixers most recent home game (against said Thunder), you'd realize what an accomplishment that is.
*But let's look at what the Timberwolves did. Or, rather, what the Sixers allowed them to do: 51.4 percent from the floor, and 25 killer points from forward Al Jefferson.
*And the outside shooting thing. This is tough because during some games this season, the Sixers have shot the ball very well from the 3-point line. But then they produce nights like last night (and like the opening-night 5 for 20 vs. the Toronto Raptors) that leave you shaking your head and wondering if the Sixers have the shooters to keep defenses honest on a nightly basis. Last night the Sixers were 1 for 11 from beyond the arc. Andre Iguodala was 1 for 6, with two of those misses coming in the final minutes of the game.
The Timberwolves made the Sixers' glaring absence of a consistent outside shooter apparant in the game's final minute when they pushed a one-point lead (95-94) to a four-point lead (98-94) by finding their shooter -- Mike Miller -- for a 3-pointer.
The Sixers went with their starting lineup -- Andre Miller, Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young, Elton Brand, Samuel Dalembert -- for much of the fourth quarter. And to be fair, this is the unit that brought the Sixers from a 10-point deficit, to down only one. But in the final possessions, the Sixers needed an outside shooter, and Iguodala tried to fill this role. After the game, I asked Cheeks if he considered getting a shooter on the floor -- i.e. Kareem Rush or Donyell Marshall -- at the end of the game. Cheeks response was that he went small for a few of the last possessions: subbing in Willie Green for Dalembert.
* The free throw thing. The Sixers were 15 for 23 (let me do the math for you ... or rather let me look at the stat sheet and copy the math already done: 65.2 percent) from the line. Andre Iguodala was a glaring 4 for 9, including a key miss late in the game that would have pulled the Sixers within one (instead it remained 94-92) with 1:30 left. Again, to be fair, Iguodala did a lot down the stretch. He tried to carry the team by slashing to the hoop, drawing fouls, and finishing a couple of tough drives.
Back to the defense, which was the Sixers main deficiency.
Once again, the Sixers struggled to stop the pick-and-roll. There were one or two possessions in the fourth quarter, when Cheeks had a lineup of Lou Williams, Willie Green, Kareem Rush, Reggie Evans, and Marreese Speights on the floor where they executed the defense of the pick and roll. Evans jumped out hard on the ball handler, forcing him to retreat. Williams and Evans then put an effective double team on the ball handler, giving him only one option: a harmless pass to the left -- nothing gained.
(When Cheeks subbed Elton Brand for Evans with 9 minutes, 42 seconds left in the game, Evans seemed to think that unit had a good thing going. He made a traveling motion with his hands as if telling Cheeks he should have let that unit get in a flow.)
But aside from those one or two possessions in the fourth quarter, with that second unit, the Sixers could not handle the pick-and-roll. And the Timberwolves are hardly Stockton and Malone.
The guard's defender continually struggled to get over the screen, and the post defender jumped out half-heartedly on the ball handler, barely forcing him to slow down. This left the Sixers trailing a penetrating guard. On most occasions, the ball handler got into the paint before being forced to make a decision.
Here's what came out of the Sixers (tiny) visitor's locker room after the game.
"It's unfortunate we lost that game," said Cheeks. "I thought their bench did a great job tonight."
(Yes, Craig Smith -- who? -- came off the bench to score 21 points on 7 of 9 shooting.)
Elton Brand on Jefferson: "They find him in spots, and he scores." <-- a classic assessment if there ever was one.
"We have our ups and downs," Brand said of the Sixers. "We're learning a lot. We have a lead, but we have to step on the gas. We can't step off the gas."
(Brand was referring to the 11-point lead -- 21-10 -- the Sixers held for about three minutes in the first quarter. By the end of the quarter, the game was back to a one-point/three-point game.)
On the relatively easier stretch the Sixers are facing (Clippers, Warriors, Bobcats), and what this game could have meant to a productive stretch: "Yeah, it could have been. We wanted this game. We wanted to get this going."
Willie Green on the same topic: "Definitely, I think this was a key game. It would have put us over .500 and we had won three-straight. It's tough to let a game like this slip away."
Thad Young on the same topic: "At the beginning of the fourth quarter we were saying, 'Come on, let's go, we need this game.' We wanted to get above .500."
Instead the Sixers return to Philly 5-6, and leave everyone wondering which team the Sixers are: The one that won three games last week, or the one that couldn't beat a struggling Minnesota team.
p.s. Yes, Dala, you were right about Jefferson.