Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Covington Miracle

Big Shot Bob Basks
So tonight, as part of my Christmas gift (thanks, Shooter Mom!), I went to the Sixers-Wolves games down at whatever Bank is Currently Paying Them But Not Me Center, mostly because it promised to be a world-class matchup of young bigs, with the Sixers' Joel Embiid trying to get vengeance on Karl-Anthony Towns. Joining me was frequent blog contributor and all-around excellent guy to see a game with, Tracer Bullet. (Not his real name, but we like to keep things pseudo here on the ol' sports blog, because we haz secret identities and such.)

After some world-class bad for you food, because that's what Philadelphia is for, we made our way upstairs to the responsible seats, just in time to see the home team run out to a 57-point first half and a 15-point lead, which was actually a bit of a downer, in that the lead had been bigger before the end of the second. The ball movement was exceptional, the club didn't fall apart when Embiid went to the bench for either of the Not Joel Guys who are probably destined to be trade chip footnotes to the next good Sixers team, and the continually surprising Ersan Ilyasova kept bailing out possessions, taking charges, and otherwise just making the team look like, well, a team, rather than some kind of science experiment in young bigatood.

When the club ran out to hot start in the third to eventually go up 26 with less than 21 minutes to play, I wondered if the curse of giveaway third quarters was finally going to take a miss for my favorite 25% win team... but then Minnesota started getting Towns involved, Zach Lavine heated up, and the Sixers offense turned into a collection of turnovers, Robert Covington bricks and stagnant movement. Not coincidentally, this all happened with more Jahlil Okaford on the court, but to be fair, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot isn't an NBA player yet, the club was operating with a single quasi-NBA point guard with TJ McConnell (Sergio Rodriguez is hurt, Jarryd Bayless is de facto dead, and Ben Simmons isn't a thing yet), and the club was also without Gerald Henderson (fine) and Richaun Holmes (means more Okafor, which no one really wants any more).

The home team proceeded to pack in the turnovers in the second half, and only scored 23 points in the last 20:34. When Ricky Rubio made a desperate three (in that nearly every Rubio three is desperate, because Ricky Can't Shoot) to tie it up with 1.6 seconds left, the crowd was crushed... not the least of which was because we all know that overtime for the Sixers means Losing Without Embiid, still on the minutes restriction that is part and parcel of a 25% winning team that's still very much In Process. But on the final inbounds play, Minny oversold on the idea that the Sixers would force feed the big man, allowing the frequently booed  Covington, in the midst of a 4 for 14 performance that included a brutal 1 for 9 stretch from the arc, with few of the attempts even drawing iron, to collect a deep inbounds from Also Good Rook Dario Saric under the hoop. One improbable bit of bankery and english later, Big Shot Bob had his 12th and 13th points, and the young Wolves were en route to a deserved, but still desparing, road loss.

The Sixers really only had four players in this game that were worthy of acclaim: Embiid, Ilyasova, Saric and Covington. Which really speaks to how the front court rotation would work if the team was all about winning games, rather than developing talent. I liked some of the work that Nerlens Noel did in this game (8 points, 1 board and no turnovers in 11 minutes), but the Eraser is so gun shy about taking any contested shot right now, the offense is like 4-on-5 with him on the floor, and the less said about Okafor (2 points, 4 boards, 1-3 from the floor in 10 minutes, and just the perfect combination of clueless and disinterested on defensive switches), the better.

What was special in this game was, as always, Embiid. 25/8/3/1/2 on 8 of 20 from the floor, 1 of 3 from the arc, and 8 of 11 from the line, including the fun sadness of watching your 7-footer take technical free throws, because no one else on the team is much better than him at that. I loved his game until he, along with everyone else, played the last 20 minutes as if holding a lead was like holding soap in the shower. You also have to feel good for Covington for shaking off the boos and not letting his masonry work affect his defense; he was the primary on Andrew Wiggins, who was 2 for 15 in this game and clearly bothered by Bob's deflection kung fu. I could have come up with dozens of scenarios for the game-winner, but none of them would have involved Bob Finishing At The Rim; he's plainly terrible at that.

But in the final analysis... any game this team wins is a precious gift, but especially so when they are a pedestrian 7 for 32 from the arc, with 16 turnovers to 19 assists. They hustled on defense, they executed the miracle closing play from a timeout to get the final lead, and they showed what's possible when the ball movement is good. Next up is a road game in Boston with Embiid on Friday, and a much more winnable shot on Sunday against the Nets. And at 9-24, and 4-6 in their last 10, they aren't last in the East anymore! (That'd be Brooklyn.) Heck, a simple 15-game winning streak would put them right back in the playoff hunt.

OK, I kid -- or, perhaps, Kiid. But next year, with maybe a scary Simmons upgrading point play and another couple of strong lottery picks to throw at the remaining holes, continued health for Jo-El, and useful trade returns from Not Jo-El? Well, LeBron's got to get old someday, right?

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