Once upon a time, there were knowledgeable basketball folk who predicted the 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers would present a legitimate challenge to the Sixer team of four decades earlier and their record for all-time futility in an 82-win season, when the squad went 9-73 back in '73. As one of his Bold Predictions for the '13-'14 season, Grantland's Zach Lowe went out on a limb to predict that the Sixers would in fact reach double-digit Ws this year, and even then he seemed to do so with great trepidation. It didn't seem like it was totally off the table, at least.
The team's unexpected 3-0 start quashed a lot of that talk, but when the team went on to lose 19 of their next 23, it seemed the Sixers might at least cut it a little closer than we'd be comfortable with. However, we can now officially put that idea to bed, as the Sixers closed out the Denver Nuggets on the road last night for their second win in a row and tenth win on the season, officially eliminating them from contention of matching the '72-'73 bunch's crappiness. (Pop those Natty Light cans, Fred Carter and Kevin Loughery.)
The Denver win is notable for a couple other reasons as well. For one, it's the first time the team's won back-to-back games since that previously mentioned 3-0 start, nearly going two whole months without getting consecutive wins. It's also just their third road victory of the season, with the second coming just one game earlier in Los Angeles. (Math majors may also be able to connect the dots and conclude that this is also the team's first time all season of winning two straight on the road.)
And it was a damn impressive win, too. A lot of it was probably the luck of catching the Nuggets at the exact right time, with Denver reeling from a season-high seven-game losing streak and quickly dropping dangerously underwater in the stacked Western Conference, but it was still one of the best team-wide performances we've seen from the boys all season. Seven players scored in double figures, four registered at least three assists, and everyone rebounded, with all eight players who played at least ten minutes grabbing at least four boards on the night.
More encouraging was the defense. It wasn't exactly an '08 Celtics-type performance, as the Nuggets still scored in triple digits, though a lot of that was inflated by the game's occasional breakneck pace, as well as the refs' impossibly tight calling of the game in terms of fouls. But the Sixers did a much better job rotating and closing out on shooters--the Nuggets went just 5-25 from deep, which was partly due to their own sustained shooting struggles, but also largely because the Sixers weren't giving up open looks on 20 of those 25 attempts. They scrambled, they helped, they occasionally broke down but didn't stop trying. It's some long-overdue but very necessary improvement for the Sixers if they want to take a step back to respectability.
Of course, any such steps the Sixers take comes with an accompanying dread that they'll get too competent and end up winning themselves out of the high lottery. Fair, though Sixer fans can at least take solace in the knowledge that they're far from the only tankers on a recent run of competent ball--Milwaukee has won two of their last five after starting the season 5-21, Utah has actually gone 4-3 in their last seven to reach double-digit wins themselves, and Sacramento has also hit its stride post-Rudy Gay trade, winning three of their last five (including Ws over the contending Heat and Rockets). The Sixers will actually head to Sactown tomorrow night to see which of the two teams have dug themselves further out of their early-season rut, and my money is on the Kings emerging victorious.
In any event, it is good to see that Michael Carter-Williams--who struggled a bit from the field tonight, going 5-15, but got to the line eight times and still managed a triple-double-flirting final line of 15 points, nine boards and six assists--really does have a huge impact on this team's ability to win games, as the Sixers are now 9-11 with MCW in the starting lineup and just 1-10 with him out of it. As the Sixers' one clear bedrock player for the future already on their active roster, it's pretty nice to see him have such a profound effect on the team's fortunes, and we can only hope he gets more impactful from here. (Don't be surprised if the Sixers start sitting him random games with earaches, sore throats and other bogus-seeming ailments just to ensure his impact on the Ballers isn't too considerable just yet.
In any event, the Sixers are officially fun as hell to watch again. Happy New Year to them and to us, and may all our Evan Turners come true in 2014.