Considering we spend plenty of time on here debating the disappointment and ineptitude that has been the 76ers this season, I think it only fair to look at last night's win over the Houston Rockets.
The question I pose: Was this a turning point of sorts?
Turning points are a touch cliche because it implies there is only one turning point in a season. It implies the season was going one way and then, from that point forth, it turned in a different direction. This just doesn't happen. Throughout a season as long as this one, there are all kinds of important/turning points.
If we look back on the first 33 games of the season, we can see the loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves was a turning point. And not for the better. We can look at the opening loss to the Toronto Raptors and see that it foreshadowed a number of issues the Sixers would have throughout the season: poor defense of the three-point shot, an inability to make big shots in crucial times, a disjointed half-court offense, etc.
I think at the time we thought that win at the Detroit Pistons might have led down a different (winning) path. But it didn't.
Still, in the spirit of optimism -- it is the New Year afterall -- I propose the following about last night's win over the Houston Rockets.
1.) It doesn't stand alone. It's not as if the Sixers were playing very, very poorly and then, last night, they happened to play better. No. If you watched all the games of the road trip, you realize last night's victory was a long time coming. The Sixers played well against the Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks, and San Antonio Spurs. We can honestly say this win was the logical next step in the improvement we've seen over the last week or so. It appeared the Sixers had reverted to their old ways in the middle of the road trip: That bad loss to the Utah Jazz and that near loss to the hapless Los Angeles Clippers made even more hapless by missing two of their top four scorers. But the swing in Texas proved that play was improving.
2.) Bench scoring. Lou Williams and Marreese Speights combine for 30 points and, in the first half, the bench outscored the starters (27-26). Now, realistically, that first-half scoring number is also a reflection of center Samuel Dalembert scoring zero points. Once again, he had two fouls in the first four minutes and sat on the bench for the first half. Uh-oh, I seem to be heading down a not-so-optimistic path by bringing up Dalembert, so I'm going to stop. Back to the reserves. The reason I think this will impact the rest of the season is because I believe Speights' performance last night ensures head coach Tony DiLeo won't be giving him any more DNP (did not plays). Obviously, I think the more Speights is on the floor, the better. I understand the transition/feeling out period for a rookie, but the the Sixers are a better team when he plays 16-22 minutes a game. I hope, with this game, the "Thad-Young-Rookies-Should Sit-On-The-Bench" period is officially over.
And let us not forget Royal Ivey. He is solidifying himself as a must-play off the bench. This is good because it keeps DiLeo from searching every game. In the beginning of the season, sometimes we'd see Ivey, sometimes Kareem Rush. With Ivey making open shots (and a three pointer!) he is the guy that should play.
3.) A big shot! Here's my usual up-front warning: Say what you want about Andre Iguodala. Everyone does. But he has played very, very well lately. (Statman, where are you?) I believe he averaged 13.6 points a game with Elton Brand in the lineup and 22.6 without him. Now, I can think of a number of explanations for this: Brand gobbles some of his options, Iguodala was in an early-season slump (remember he didn't play much this summer because of contract negotiations ... oh, and what a contract it was), plain ol' coincidence (I don't believe this). Regardless, Iguodala makes this team run. Pay attention. When he sits in the fourth quarter, the team falters. Believe me, I see the bonehead turnovers. But I also saw the game-tying dunk with under a minute to play against San Antonio. I also see his willingness to take the last shot (even though he missed it against the Indiana Pacers and traveled against the Nuggets). The more he is in those positions, the more he will deliver, eventually.
Oh yeah, the big shot! in last night's game: Iguodala made it. The three-point shot Iguodala made in the left corner kept the Rockets at arms length at the end of the fourth quarter. It's a shot the Sixers just haven't been making this season. Whenever they have an opportunity to push the lead up to 6 or 7, or cut the lead from 9 to 6 -- those important, strategy-shifting shots -- they've missed. We talked about it earlier this season. This inability cost them game after game. That shot by Iguodala, even though it came with plenty of time still to play, and plenty of plays still to be made, was important.
Okay. There you have it: optimism. Crazy, I know. That I'm feeling optimistic while waiting at a gate boarding to Milwaukee (through Cleveland) is amazing. But look at the next two games: Tonight against the Bucks, Friday against the Charlotte Bobcats (who are either very improved, or the Celtics are really struggling ... I suggest the latter).
That's what makes tonight's game so important. As much as I've outlined here in my belief that we saw something change last night, the Sixers must play well tonight. With the Bucks at 17-19, I don't suggest it's an absolute must victory, but it must not be a run-away Milwaukee win.