76ers went with a small starting lineup this afternoon against the New Jersey Nets. Spencer Hawes, who started the first two preseason games at center, was out with a lower back strain. Instead of filling his spot with backup Marreese Speights, Sixers coach Doug Collins started rookie shooting guard Evan Turner and moved everyone else up a spot: Andre Iguodala to small forward, Thaddeus Young to power forward, and Elton Brand to center.
Collins had said earlier in the preseason that he would only play Young at small forward so he could mentally focus on the position, but it seems the injury forced a change in Collins' thinking. And considering Young proved, once again, that he's better suited for that power forward spot, you have to wonder if Collins will now be up at night wondering how he can incorporate Young as a power forward. Young finished the game with 16 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists.
So ... things are still looking somewhat out-of-sync for the Sixers. Aside from the game's result, which was a 90-89 loss that never should have happened (Nets hit a trio of three pointers in the game's final 12.5 seconds, Sixers missed 3 of 4 free throws down the stretch), here are some observations:
* The Sixers looked good through the first quarter and a half of today's game. Before you could even look at the stats, the Sixers had 8 fastbreak points and were playing more of a wide-open game. That's what they have to do. As soon as the game settled down into the halfcourt, the Sixers looked awful in the second quarter. Their offense wasn't working and they can't defend the Nets in the paint. Yes, the Nets have a big-time center in Brook Lopez, but even in a preseason game he's clearly dominant. Elton Brand is physical with Lopez, he leans on him and pushes him farther away from the block. Brand is much more physical than Hawes, but Lopez can still score, mostly on that turnaround hook, too often against Brand. Speights, when he came in, couldn't stop Lopez, either. Once the NBA season starts, any team that has a legitimate center will likely dominate the Sixers inside. Lopez finished with 23 points. You can point to the "points in the paint" as being about even, which they were, but there's a difference between accumulating points on drives, cuts, and put-backs versus having a low-post presence that can dominate a game and alter the other team's defensive strategy.
*Iguodala is still forcing a lot of jumpers. Some of them are sound decisions, nice in-between 12-footers open off of a screen. Others are not. No matter how much evidence to the contrary, Iguodala appears ready to continue taking some forced shots. In the beginning of the third quarter, Iguodala made a trio of jumpers, but even that shouldn't be happening with any regularity. He should be getting to the basket. Watching Iguodala do everything else on the court is fun: he passes well, he runs in transition, he's playing good defense. He's a smart defensive player. On multiple occasions on Saturday, he was left to guard a swing pass and close out on two players. He splits the difference between them and almost always forces the most difficult shot possible. There's so much effectiveness to his game. And then there are still the outside jumpshots and this team just doesn't need another season of them.
*Through 12 quarters of preseason basketball, the Sixers are 6 for 46 from beyond the arc. This is just a ridiculously bad number. If you're shooting at that percentage (and it's not out of the ordinary, we watched it all of last season), then you shouldn't be shooting 46 three pointers through 12 quarters. It's poor offensive execution and most often settling for the worst shot available. After today's game, Collins said he's OK with 12 three pointers a game, but once you get up into the 18 range, it's counter-productive.
*Andres Nocioni's game is going to become a fan favorite. He's all about playing hard. If you watch him for a possession, you see him seeking out contact at every opportunity. He's never missing a boxout, or not battling inside for an offensive rebound. He's scrambling on defense. He hit one smooth-looking outside shot, but he's still a little rusty from all of his missed time. Once he gets back into the flow, he's going to give this team a much-needed presence for about 20 minutes a game.
*Turner did a lot of nice things on the court today. He finished with 14 points, 7 assists, and 6 rebounds. He made some nice plays in the open court. He had one particularly nice fastbreak pass to Brand. We're still not convinced he can play with Holiday, though. Neither is very effective without the ball and their shared court time does not seem to maximize their abilities.
Bottom line: The preseason has been slightly worrisome. It would be nice to pretend like everything that has happened is meaningless, but it's the way the games have been played that's (a little bit) disturbing. As I wrote for tomorrow's Inquirer, there are still reasons for these struggles. The team continues to battle its way out of last season's hole, Holiday is playing extremely poor and we don't believe that will continue, and the offense is in its infancy and occasionally produces the shot you assume it will eventually produce consistently. (That's a complicated sentence.)
76ers fans will get a chance to see for themselves on Tuesday when the Sixers play the Boston Celtics at the Wells Fargo Center.