Take It On the Run: Up-tempo Sixers narrowly defeat Bilbao Spain in pre-season opener

Take It On the Run: Up-tempo Sixers narrowly defeat Bilbao Spain in pre-season opener
October 7, 2013, 9:43 am

Whoo. You might have needed to catch your breath a bit after that surprisingly suspenseful and absolutely exhausting-looking pre-season opener for the Philadelphia Sixers in Bilbao, Spain, in which the Liberty Ballers managed to just escape a loss with a fourth-quarter surge to take the lead, and then a couple clutch Spencer Hawes free throws to stave off the choke job. The Brett Brown era of Sixers ball officially begins with a 106-104 overseas victory.

More importantly than seeing our boys get the W, we also got to see their new team identity, which from the looks of this one couldn't be more clear: Cause turnovers and get out in transition. Prepare for a boatload of homoerotic puns over the course of this Sixers season, because they were seriously getting their hands on some balls today--Doug Collins' black heart would have been warmed by the countless number of deflections this team got, especially with their starters out in the first half, and they ended with 23 steals on the afternoon. (By contrast, last year's squad averaged about 7.4 swipes per game, and never managed more than 14 in any individual contest.)

As stunning as the defense's disruptiveness was, it was the team's play in the open court that made the biggest impression. About 60 seconds into this one, it was pretty damn clear that Brett Brown's talk about pace and pushing the tempo was not just typical pre-season lip service--this team got out and ran like hell. They ran off makes, they ran off misses, and they definitely ran off turnovers, seemingly spending two-thirds of the game in transition.

While this led to some nice plays and a lot of easy points on the break--imperative for a young team like the Sixers, and one lacking in major half-court offensive weapons--it also led to a lot of sloppy giveaways going back the other way, and the team's shaky on-court chemistry (which came as no surprise for a squad that's been totally overhauled and has only played together for a little over a week) was evident on some botched alley-oops and other two-on-ones. Though the Sixers caused steals, they also turned the ball over 26 times--again more than the team registered in any game last year. (To be fair, both numbers were inflated by the game's international officiating, in which just about anything that vaguely resembled a travel, moving screen or offensive foul was ruled as such. And that it was, y'know, a pre-season exhibition game.)

Still, you hope that as the team tightens things up a little bit, their running ways will serve them will over the course of the season, as their blitzing defense and supreme youth and athleticism allows them to stay in games against competition that's probably more talented and clearly more seasoned. At the very least, it's a good deal more entertaining to watch so far than last year's stodgy parade of low-percentage pick-and-pops and plodding iso possessions.

Individual notes on some of the game's more noteworthy players:

Evan Turner was clearly the star of the day, scoring a game-high 25 points with five boards and three assists (though five TOs, natch). More important than the number of points for ET was the way he scored them--he did a good job early of not settling for his trademark contested mid-range jumpers, attacking the basket and drawing 12 free throws for the game, six in the first quarter alone. There might be periods this season where he goes two weeks without drawing that many FTs, and the international officiating again helped a little with that, but it was good to see Evan taking advantage of the relative lack of athleticism on the Spain team by driving and drawing contact whenever possible.

Also good to see ET essentially serve as the closer on this one, checking back in the game during a fourth-quarter lull that saw the Sixers start to slip out of contention, but bringing them back with a couple nice elbow jumpers in which he'd managed to clear enough space with his dribble to get the shots off virtually uncontested, as well as an impressive baseline shot which it didn't seem he'd possibly have room to get up and in. Evan's line on the night would have looked even more impressive had he not failed to finish on a couple easy ones at the basket, but that those shots were even there for him at all was mildly encouraging.

The only real knock on Turner in this one was his occasionally lazy defense, failing to get back in transition on a couple occasions, letting himself get hung up on screens that freed wide-open three-point shooters, and missing a rotation or two that led to easy interior scores for the opposition. But ultimately, a strong evening (Bilbao time) for the Extraterrestrial.

ET's outing stood in strong contrast to that of rookie Michael Carter-Williams, who couldn't score at all--just three points on the night on 1-5 shooting, the 1 being a nice knifing layup drive early in the first--but contributed to the game in just about all other facets. Unlike the rest of the predominantly butterfingered Sixers tonight, MCW managed to notch six assists without turning the ball over once, which was very impressive for such a scattershot game. Both Carter-Williams and Turner did an excellent job throughout of penetrating in the lane and then kicking out to the open shooters in the corners--an obvious staple of Coach Brown's previous administration in San Antonio, and one of the more efficient ways to score in today's NBA.

Carter-Williams also served as one of the team's most active ballhawks on defense, notching three steals and countless more deflections, and generally giving the Bilbao ball-handlers the business with his pressuring defense. MCW did get very badly abused in the post on one occasion, with his slightish frame occasionally making for a bad matchup when he's forced to guard opposing wings in smaller Sixer lineups, but it's clear that his perimeter defense is going to be a real asset for the team this year.

The shooting, without a doubt, is going to be a problem. MCW opted out of taking a couple open jumpers from range early, and when he later actually attemtped a couple, it was clear to see why he was initially hesitant--his first trey missed so badly that Thad was able to finish it like an unintentional alley-oop, and his second bricked wide right enough to miss the rim entirely. When he was forced to pull up in the lane, the lack of any kind of floater or runner in his arsenal showed itself, as he instead lifted for a kind of off-balance fadeaway jumper, missing awkwardly from short distance.

Still, the hope with MCW is that he'll eventually turn into a Rajon Rondo-like player, a threat on offense with his ability to penetrate at will and either score around the hoop or dish to the open man (even if his lack of a jumper occasionally makes him a liability), and a general menace on defense. From the evidence today, there were strong signs that he might get there eventually, even if it seems all but certain we'll have to endure a couple seasons of Carter-Williams shooting in the 30%s before he gets there.

Star of Sixers training camp Tony Wroten had a game that similarly exposed his strengths and weaknesses. Wroten was also an occasional beast on defense and a terror in the open court, at one point scoring an and-one with an almost Derrick Rose-like twisting finish in minimal space off a fantastic Spencer Hawes outlet pass. He looked stronger and more athletic than any other player on the court, and his enormous potential on both sides of the ball was abundantly clear.

There were buts, though. The three steals he racked up were the result of relentless gambling on defense, letting the opposition blow by him on numerous occasions when he failed to get the strip or deflection. And for every highlight-worthy play in the open court, there was another where he missed a bunny or made the wrong read on the odd-man break. (To his credit, Wroten at least kept a lid on his limited outside shooting in the half-court, only attempting one three and making most of his hay on drives to the basket, finishing 3-8 from the field and 10-12 from the line.)

Interestingly, when it came time for the Sixers' final possession of the day/night, Wroten essentially waved off Evan Turner, who had been the Sixers' most reliable scorer and (as MCW sat) best playmaker in the fourth quarter, running a pick-and-roll with Hawes that went nowhere. You like the confidence, I guess, but I wonder if Coach Brown wouldn't have rather Wroten let the more experienced (and game-hotter, if you place stock in such streakiness) Turner make the game-deciding play. Something to keep an eye on from here.

Up-and-down night for Thaddeus Young, whose apparent eagerness to show off his improved ball-handling and outside-shooting skills let to a good number of cringe-worthy slippage turnovers and clanked jumpers. Credit to Thad, though, he made a couple big shots (even a three-pointer!) late, and ended with a very Thad-like line of 14 points on 6-11 shooting, with six rebounds and a team-high five steals, even if he also turned the ball over five times and fouled six times, including on the late-fourth trey attempt that allowed German Gabriel three free throws to tie the game. All in all, decent enough for a first game of the new year.

James Anderson impressed some, scoring 15 points on 6-8 shooting, including 2-3 from distance. He looked a little like J-Rich for us catching-and-shooting beyond the arc, also getting a nice slam on an alley-oop on the break and playing acceptable defense. He wouldn't be the first Sixer to look lights-out in the pre-season and then turn into a bricklayer once the calendar turns to November, but he could be a nice pick-up for the shooting-starved Sixers. (Hollis Thompson also had some moments, scoring nine points on 3-4 shooting.)

The aforementioned game-winning free throws and excellent touchdown pass were just about the only things that Spencer Hawes did well on this one, otherwise going 1-8 from the field with six boards, though at least the one field goal was a big three-pointer to tie the game late. Otherwise, Spence badly missed TWO SEPARATE putback dunks, got generally pushed around on defense, and missed on every one of his needle-threading interior passes, ending the game with two turnovers and zero assists. With the lack of competent, healthy big men on this roster, Spence is definitely gonna get his minutes, but he's gonna have to do better than this during this contract year of his to have any kind of post-Sixers future.

I have no pressing observations on Tim Ohlbrecht, other that he kinda looks like Spence in profile, which can be really confusing, especially since Ohlbrecht wears #20, which resembles Spence's #00 at a glance. He also got dunked on once, furthering the comparison. Get well soon, Lavoy.

Speaking of health, you can really see how brilliantly Nerlens Noel is going to fit on this roster upon his return. The Sixers' perimeter guys clearly have the green light to go for the steal on defense just about whenever possible, which as previously mentioned, leads to a lot of turnovers and runouts, but also leads to a lot of easy penetration and layups when they whiff, especially given the team's current lack of a second line of defense. (Sorry, Spence.)

But with a true shot-blocking threat like Noel back there to provide that second line, and even to purposefully funnel opponents to...it won't fix all the team's defensive woes, but it'll certainly help cover up some of the more catastrophic breakdowns. Not to mention the additional weaponry he'll provide for the team as a mobile big man on the fast break, or the fact that Nerlens was nearly as much of a force stripping the ball (over two steals a game at Kentucky) as he was blocking it. Point is, once this guy's healthy, he's gonna help us in a big way, even if his offensive game doesn't even reach first-year Serge Ibaka levels of sophistication.

Anyway, lotta good, lotta not-so-good, and mostly a whole bunch of who-knows from the Philadelphia 76ers in this early pre-season matchup. Gotta say, though, it's pretty exciting to have all this new shit to talk with this team about after just one game. Beats the hell out of more Swaggy, Kwame and Damien, for sure.

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