Prior to their match-up with the Defending Champs, the Philadelphia 76ers had lost their last two games against Texas teams in truly bi-polar fashion: A 53-point loss to the Mavericks, followed by a 1-point loss to the Rockets. You've surely heard the cliche by now that in professional sports, any team can beat any other team on any given night. Assuming a Spurs win against a team making no bones about their desire to lose as frequently as possible (not to mention the league's worst offensive team at 91.8 against the league's fifth-best defense at 100.9) the question then is which of the Sixers' two previous losses would provide the template for this one? As it turns out, there would be a little of both in the Spurs' not-terribly-inspiring 25 point victory.
By the way, did you know the Spurs have the fifth-best defense this season? Without Tiago Splitter, that's a pretty decent mark. Here's something else that may also provide some comfort regarding the gaudy records possessed by the top three Western Conference teams (who are 27-6 combined): Houston is 29th in strength of schedule, Memphis 23rd, Golden State 11th. The Spurs? They're second, which is partly why, going into Monday night, their expected W-L was the same as their actual record, 5-4.
I turn to numbers to tell the story because what's there to talk about during a game like this? One promising feature of the Sixers is their game pace, which is second in the league. And their defense, while not good, also isn't dead last in the NBA as you might expect. However, those two attributes could not coalesce as Philly repeatedly allowed the Spurs to beat them down the floor on the fast break and get into the lane in the half court. They improved a little after halftime, in the sense that they traded the open lane for open threes. The Spurs, of course, did Philly some favors by settling for bad shots, failing to generate good looks off of secondary actions, not making the extra pass or making one pass too many.
Once the early game got "a little summer league-ish" (Sean Elliott's words) the Spurs regrouped, Aron Baynes broke a 16-6 tie that had persisted for about twenty minutes, and the team quit playing down to their opponent. The second unit, as it so often has in this glorious era, came in settled and confident, putting on a 14-3 run capped by a Cory Joseph transition layup +1 at the end of the first quarter. It would be the first of several offensive pushes that seemed destined to send the Spurs on their way to a Dallas-esque blowout.
Already my eyes were drifting over to the score of the Memphis-Houston game, which at that point the Grizzlies led 63-38. Yikes. It occurred to me then that if we face Memphis in the playoffs, they'll be motivated by the same thing that motivated us in 2013: Vengeance.
A game against this team forces you to scramble for some broader meaning. But it's hard for a team like the Spurs to play a team like the Sixers, who came in Monday possessing the same record as the Oakland Raiders, and leave with anything definitive. Philly has NBA talent, but they play like a bunch of guys who just met that afternoon. The entire cornucopia of rotten play is present. There's botched inbounds passes, taking bad angles on the pick and roll, late or lazy cuts to the basket, high-risk/low-reward baseline traps that leave former 3-point shooting contest participants wide open. As a team who's expected to compete for a championship, the Spurs inevitably end up playing against expectations instead competing against a basketball team.
Once assured of their superiority, the Spurs settled down into a Pop-sanctioned form of fun. Kawhi (who pulled down 11 rebounds in 19 minutes) broke out a Parker-esque spin move in the paint, and a short time later Bonner floated up two points from his hip pocket. Often, a shot like that would be twice his normal effort resulting in 2/3rds his normal production. This move, along with the rest of Matt's at-the-rim repertoire this season, felt a little different, more in the flow of the offense than offensive safety valve. The move didn't suggest the second coming of the Iceman, but it was a nifty look. (If he keeps taking it to the hole like this, maybe Red Rocket's alt nickname should be "Dry Ice"?) Then, late in the third quarter, the second unit pulled together into a huddle after stringing together a few sloppy plays. Go on, name me another team in the NBA with a second unit that huddles up.
(Ugh, Memphis won by 26. And they weren't playing the Sixers.)
Despite those individual moments, there was never much sense that the Spurs were into this game. Perhaps it was the whiplash of going from playing the West's best to the East's worst, or maybe it was the ennui inherent in anybody who has to drag themselves to work on a Monday. Whatever it was, the comfortable lead was down to 12 early in the fourth, with Cory Joseph seeming like the only Spur still interested in finishing things off. Naturally, Pop responded by pulling Joseph in favor of a Diaw-Ayres-Daye-Bonner-Green lineup, with Green the de facto ball handler. Maybe that was his way of reminding everyone there was still a game on.
Sixer coach Brett Brown needed to provide no such reminders. His team never stopped competing, playing as if they were down 5, not 25. The Sixers do show some promise underneath all those layers of inexperience and engineered mediocrity. Games like this, on the road against the Defending Champs, are motivational for them, while at the same time not likely to upset GM Sam Hinkie's grand scheme of tanktastic team building. For the D.C.s, the result is a much-needed notch in the win column, but also a sober reminder that the Sixers (not to mention the Grizzlies, Warriors, and Rockets) possess something these Spurs haven't quite owned this season: a definite sense of identity.
Oh, the residuals are there from last year, along with everyone who contributed to that fifth banner, but each campaign demands a reworking of the plan, however slight, along with a continual re-dedication, until the goal is realized. The Sixers and Spurs ultimately have the same goal (at least, I think they do), but right now the Spurs' path is a little less defined. Getting the offense right is a start, but that's not what happened Monday night, despite the team scoring 100 for only the third time in ten games. Green and Bonner got some threes to fall, but they generally play better at home. What tonight's win did, more than anything, was contrast two plans: one for creating success, one for sustaining it. The idea of getting back to the mountaintop necessarily, and incorrectly, assumes that you've fallen down to the bottom. From the perspective of the Sixers, the Grizzlies, and the rest of the NBA, the Spurs are still sitting right there at the top.
Cory Joseph. Bonner and Duncan scored more, but Cory was the Spurs' primary source of energy on an otherwise lackadaisical night. There was no Ibaka dunk, and the stakes were obviously a bit smaller, but I couldn't help remembering when he did something similar last season.
On a night when everyone played double-digit minutes and made at least one shot, I'm tempted to go with Austin Daye for his 2 turnovers on 4-10 shooting (for 9 points.) In reality, it would've taken a true team effort - and probably some Buffalo Wild Wings shenanigans - for the Spurs to lose this game.
Quote of the Night
"(The Sixers) do not have a lot of good shooters or guys who can run an offense."
- Sean Elliott (Okay, so he actually said "set offense" but I'm pretty sure he was just being nice.)
- Kyle Anderson looks like an NBA player, sort of a Diaw-Green hybrid in appearance, but I don't know yet what defines him as a player. Since Diaw and Green are pretty much on the opposite end of the specialization spectrum, it'll be interesting to see what Kyle finally becomes. I do think calling him "Slo-Mo" is a bit unfair. Rather than slow, he comes across more as deliberate, rarely expending unnecessary effort. Most rookies, particularly in November, are Kawasaki Ninjas. Anderson is a Buick LeSabre. Combine his efficiency of motion with a raw but varied skill set, and it's easy to see why the Spurs like him.
- Speaking of Danny Green, he took a heat check 3 as his first shot of the game.
- This Sixers team may be the best argument against putting those gold championship patches on the backs of uniforms.
- Between Noel and reigning ROY Michael Carter-Williams, you can get a sense of what Philly is actually building toward. As of now, they rely far too much on a sugar-heavy diet of fast break points, and they're prone to mistakes and miscommunication, best exemplified by a Spurs defensive switch during which Noel found himself with the 6-3 Joseph guarding him. Noel responded by attempting to set a pick for Carter-Williams. They'll make a nice picture someday, but the film is still developing.
- Brown called a timeout with 19.6 seconds left in the first half and the Sixers down twelve. He knew a three pointer going into the half would give his team both a psychological boost. It didn't work; the Sixers threw it away after a midcourt trap on Carter-Williams. But don't tell me Brown isn't trying to win.
- After committing 10 turnovers in the first half, the Sixers only committed only 3 in the second.
- There was an echo of Pop's super-unorthodox lineup at the end of the game, this time with Anderson running the point. This prompted Elliott to call Anderson "UCLA's Magic Johnson" in reference to his time with the Bruins. After this pronouncement, Anderson promptly had a shot swatted by Henry Sims. Not sure if it's worth noting that Elliott went to Arizona.
- Tony, Tim, Manu, and Kawhi all played under 20 minutes tonight. With Cleveland coming up, that's like winning two games at once.
Tweet of the Night
Man the Spurs are still good. Finished the game on a 100-75 run.— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) November 18, 2014