Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Sixers Lose... And Make Maddening Progress

Span, Wing
So today was a screen-free day for me, and honestly, those are just the best. I put the laptop in a separate room, checked the phone every few hours at most, and more or less lived as if I wasn't on the clock for work or the blog or anything else. These are glorious. I spent a ton of time making the house better for the holidays, got help from the kids, found some stuff that had been lost, made a great dinner, and so on, and so on.

And then I made the mistake of checking my NBA scores app, and saw that my beloved and bedraggled Sixers were holding an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter, at home, against one of the best teams in the NBA so far this year, the Memphis Grizzlies.

So, my fellow Sixers fans? Blame me for this heartbreaking 120-115 overtime loss, since I couldn't just leave well enough alone, but had to go turn on the game and ruin the mojo. Blame me for the Grizz suddenly making a ton of threes that they don't usually make. Blame me for PG Michael Carter-Williams turning into Bad Possession Guy, with long threes early in the clock, gambling reaches to let open shooters, and misses at the cup that were just exasperating.

Or, well, credit the Grizz for having the heart to dig down deep, crank up their trademark defensive pressure, and avoid a loss that would have haunted them later in the year, when they are jockeying for playoff position.

But before we turn the page on this, a quick note about two highly encouraging developments for the most watchable tankers ever. Robert Covington got another start at power forward and filled up the box score, and also got to the line when the Grizz started running him off the three point line. It would be nice if he started making some of those foul-drawing runners, but at least he's a high percentage shooter at the line, which is pretty much unique to this club. In all of the sifting that Sam Hinkie has been doing with the back end of the roster, Bob looks like a keeper. Hell, he might even be a starter on a decent team; that's just how pure his stroke has looked from distance so far.

And in far more concrete news... Nerlens Noel was as good as I've seen him so far this year, and that's in a game where he scored four points.

You'd have had to watch the game to know it. The Sixers pretty much stopped scoring field goals in the back half of the fourth quarter, only getting occasional free throws. Memphis started raining threes. They should have taken the lead sooner. Instead, they needed a one-footed heave from PG Mike Conley, having a career night in scoring, just to send it into overtime. Why? Nerlens Noel.

Twice in the fourth quarter, on switches, Noel came out on Conley and forced a turnover. Yeah, a 7-foot rookie center on a hyper-smart All-Star PG, on the perimeter. Noel's length and monstrous wingspan just shut it down. Twice in the fourth, Noel caused turnovers on entry passes to C Marc Gasol, once on a classic veteran "pull the chair" move, and once by skillfully tying his man up so that the pass sailed out of bounds. He created a fast break opportunity by flashing out on SG Courtney Lee and blocking a three, and the distance covered was absurd.

Note how many of these plays were made away from the basket. Noel's not going to be one of those guys that gets automatically taken out of the game when the opposition goes small. And he's already starting to get some deference from the refs on foul calls.

Offensively? Oh, he's still a mess. There is no actual go to move for him, any distance on a jump shot is a poor option, and he has to come off the floor if the opposition is fouling intentionally. But he's mostly stayed healthy, the counting stats are starting to come, and it's no coincidence that the team is starting to look like an NBA team when he's on the floor. That's just how much of a difference maker he is, and his teammates are starting to take advantage of it. Last year's Sixers didn't close out on shooters at all, because to do so was just to invite someone to go dunk on hapless Spencer Hawes and Henry Sims. This year's Sixers make the effort, and as a consequence, Noel and swingman KJ McDaniels have opportunities for rejections. There's the seed of a very good defensive team growing here, intermittently and with much back and forth, but it's coming.

So, win number three didn't happen tonight, and it's legitimately disappointing, because Carter-Williams, the club's best current player, pretty much wasn't up to closing the deal. But he's not going to be the best player on the team pretty soon. And they'll get their third win fairly soon. And then, enough to avoid history this year, and to start making positive history, soon after.

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