I made the same comment to just about anyone I talked to about the Sixers this pre-season: That I was grateful that the NBA had frontloaded the Sixers' schedule with so many seemingly unwinnable games that it would be virtually impossible for the team to get off to a hot start and get people's hopes up that this team was better than it actually was.
Whoops. I guess when something is "virtually" impossible that means it's at least a little bit "actually" possible, and the Sixers have exploited that minority percentage for two straight wins to start the NBA season. Tonight it came against the Washington Wizards--not exactly world-beaters like the two-time champion Heat, but a team with playoff aspirations and at least two young players who the Sixers would gladly trade their entire roster for--with a final score of 109-102. (Combined with the opener's 114-point tally, that means that the season after trading their best offensive player, the Sixers have scored more across their first two games than they did in any two-game stretch last year.)
And it wasn't the same as last night, either--the Sixers getting off to an impossibly hot start that it at least took the Heat an entire two quarters to catch up with, then just kinda outlasting them at the end. This time, it was Washington (and franchise point guard John Wall specifically, who started the game 6-6 with 16 points in the first quarter) who were blistering out of the gates, and Philly who needed two quarters to claw back into it. But claw they did---with their FINGAHNAILS--and in the fourth quarter, they were the team pulling away as the Wizards lost their composure and basically fell apart. You'd never know the Sixers were a team that replaced half their roster with younger, less polished players a year after finishing 34-48.
The primary engine drivers tonight were the Sixers' Big Three--don't laugh, at least not too loudly--of Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes. A game after finishing with 26 points on 10-19 shooting, five assists and four rebounds, the Extraterrestrial replicated that performance with an almost eerie precision, going for 23 (10-18 shooting), six boards and four dimes, and again keeping the team afloat in the middle quarters with some beautiful shot creation in the half-court and a couple cherry-picked buckets in transition.
Thad bounced back from a rough outing last night with one of his best games as a Sixer, going for 29 and eight and hitting seemingly everything he put up in the second half, a stark contrast to last night's barrage of close-range misses. His instincts to get to where he needed to be near the basket (and when he needed to be there) to pick on gorgeous feeds from the likes of MCW and Hawes--more on him in a minute--were absolutely pitch-perfect. I mean, look at this friggin' shot chart, courtesy of ESPN.com:
Can't ask for much higher-percentage than that, can you?
As good as Evan and Thad were tonight, though, it was Spence that really impressed me. 16 points (including a team high three triples!), 14 boards and five dimes, as well as providing a surprisingly solid presence in the middle, at least in the game's later stages. Coupled with his 24-point outing last night, Spence is officially playing his best basketball since he looked like an All-Star candidate for about three weeks at the start of the lockout-shortened '11-'12 season.
The assists were the sweetest part, as Spence proved quite adept tonight at finding the leaking man in transition with perfect outlet passes for easy baskets. I've often thought Spence's supposed passing skills were overrated and possibly non-existent--he's still never notched double-digits in a game, and it seems like most of the time, our big man fancying himself a distributor just results to a lot of forced bounce-passes to cutters that end up going off a teammate's foot and out of bounds, or starting the fast break in the other direction. But tonight, you really saw the benefits of having a big man and rebounder that's not afraid to go for the home-run dish.
Of course, you have to wonder how much that, and all of the rest of this, has to do with Coach Brown. Coaches always get too much credit when the team is doing well and too much blame when they're doing poorly, so I don't want to crown him as the next Popovich just yet, but it really seems like he's doing a good job of getting the best out of what this team has to offer, whether that's offering Spence the freedom to take threes, or letting Michael Carter-Williams gamble for steals a little on defense, or making sure the entire team runs runs runs at every given opportunity to get as many easy points as possible--something Doug Collins seemed to actively de-emphasize towards the end of his Sixers tenure. (I have the ESPN NBA game taped tonight, and I look forward to watching Dougie at halftime and seeing how he reacts to the suddenly 2-0 76ers.)
Oh yeah, and let's not forget about that dude Michael Carter-Williams. It looked at first like MCW was gonna get absolutely walloped with regression to the mean in this one, as he started the game 1-6 with more turnovers than assists. But as the game went on, his confidence seemed to pick up, and by the final quarter he was hitting stepback threes and making gorgeous dishes to Spence and Thad, ending the night with a thoroughly respectable 14 points (6-15 shooting), five assists and three rebounds. Michael won't make SportsCenter for this one--though the alley-oop he deposited from Evan on an out-of-bounds play was impressive, if a little awkward--but if we could rely on that kind of nightly production from MCW this season, we'd certainly take it.
Now, I know what you're all wondering: Should we be worried about this? I mean, as much fun as it is to win two games in two tries when most (including myself) thought they'd be lucky to have that many W's by Thanksgiving, everyone knows that this wasn't the plan Sam Hinkie or anyone else in the Sixers organization had in mind for this season--we were supposed to bottom out, to lose and lose and lose until the NBA just gave us the #1 pick to make us stop. If we keep winning like this, we might just end up in the middle again, which is what we were supposed to avoid doing this season at all costs.
Well, you can rest your weary heads tonight, Sixers fans, safe in the knowledge that as simultaneously thrilling and terrifying the last two W's have been, it's not gonna last forever. The season's new, and it's still very possible to catch teams off guard--as evidenced by the fact that the mostly deplorable Suns, Kings, Bobcats and Magic have all picked up wins already as well. The Charlotte Bobcats went 7-5 in their first 12 games last season, getting pundits to label them a surprise fringe playoff contender, before they lost their next 18 games on the way back to the bottom of the East. None of this necessarily means anything yet.
But does it mean that the Sixers may be, just may be a little better than most people thought? I think so. I never thought the team was going to challenge for the all-time loss record--I pegged them for a respectably terrible 22-60 record in the Sixers Prediction League, which I'm still sticking with--because I thought that even if their core was subpar-to-mediocre, they at least had well-defined roles and complemented one another well enough that they could win a handful of games just by being solid and taking advantage of the messier teams when their games devolved into chaos. So far so good with that, though I'd be loath to ignore the fact that some of the performances--MCW's debut, Spence from behind the arc tonight--were probably a little fluky and unlikely to oft be repeated.
Where this team will decisively lose games, and lots of them, is with its second unit. You could see it tonight--during those mid-half stretches where the starters rested, there just wasn't nearly enough play-making or experience on the court to really get anything done. Tony Wroten can create havoc in transition, but struggles to run plays in the half-court. Lavoy Allen is a decent complementary guy but doesn't have the moves produce much on his own. Daniel Orton has moments of jaw-dropping potential, sprinkled among long stretches of poor fundamentals and poorer fitness. Darius Morris and Hollis Thompson might not be NBA players. The Sixers saw their deficit grow the longer their bench unit was out there, and there are going to be a lot of games this season where those stretches of negative basketball make the difference between wins and losses.
But through two games, the starting lineup (with Wroten as its sixth man) has shown that it has enough shooting, passing, athleticism, smarts and overall floor balance to stay in games, and even steal a couple. This can really only be a good thing for the team moving forward. Forcing a raw rookie like Michael Carter-Williams (well, he seemed raw up until this Wednesday, anyway) to learn how to run a team with running mates too incompetent for him to maximize his potential doesn't do anyone any good, particularly MCW, and in the meantime, he's building chemistry with James Anderson and Thaddeus Young and other guys who might still be around for when the team's ready to be good--like, actually good--again.
In the meantime, if players like Spence and Evan, who as of now don't seem to feature in the team's future plans, want to continue playing the best, most consistent ball of their careers, that's just giving Sam Hinkie the proper ammunition to go into the NBA's trading season locked and loaded with assets to further set this team up for the future, and maybe ensure that they stay bad enough this season to stay in the tanking race. Really, as long as the team doesn't suddenly reverse course and start trading cheap young guys for expensive vets in a misguided attempt to chase a playoff seed--impossible to imagine under Hinkie's watch--nothing about the team playing this well this early in the season can be considered a bad thing.
And at the end of the day, it's still only two games, with plenty of opportunities to pile up losses still to come--including an especially choice one tomorrow night at home against the Chicago Bulls. Really, we should all just be enjoying this--through two games, we've already had more elation and excitement than most of us expected to feel from this team all season.
So go pet a dog, buy a big ol' chocolate ice cream cone, finally tell her or him how you really feel. It's nothing but good times right now with the 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers, and we should do our damnedest to have fun with it for as long--probably not very long--as we possibly can.