Tonight the Sixers face the Chicago Bulls at home(again). If you recall, the biggest win of the Sixers season so far came against the Bulls a little over a month ago at home to a final score of 98-82 on February 1st. B ack when the win occurred, the Sixers were the talk of the NBA. ESPN.com’s own John Hollinger had the Sixers atop his power rankings and ESPN.com’s Marc Stein held the Sixers slightly below that ranking, coming in at number three. Analysts were debating whether or not this team was actually a championship contender. This was of course before everything that transpired for the Sixers during the rest of the month of February.
After February 1st, the Sixers held the second best record in the league at 16-6. Today the Sixers stand at 22-15. During February the Sixers went 6-9. The Sixers have only had three constants which have happened during this time. The Sixers continue to lead the League in defense, now allowing just 87 ppg. They also still stand atop the Atlantic division, with the suddenly hot Celtics nipping at their heels just three games back, and the Linsanity Knicks only three and half back. The team has also had to play without starting center Spencer Hawes for a good portion of this time, as he logged just two games for the month of February.
Each game he played I might add led to Sixers wins (Feb. 4th in a 98-87 win @ the Hawks, and Feb. 6th in a 95-90 win at home against the Lakers). Hawes has DNP’d in 12 straight games with a strained Achilles, and many around the Sixers think that we may never see Hawes suit up again for the 7-6 in the 2011-12 season.
Since the win against the Lakers, the Sixers are 0-8 against teams with a .500 or better record and 4-0 against teams which are below .500. This isn’t to say that the Sixers were completely dominated in the games which they have lost during this time period. They lost by six points or less in four of the contests, and let a game get away in the fourth quarter against the Spurs, which they had done just prior to this stretch against the Heat. That’s five games where when it came down to it, the Sixers couldn’t close out an opponent. The 4-8 record over the past 12 games could easily be 9-4. That’s been the story of the Sixers this season though.
The Sixers have been in every game this season outside of the whooping that Miami put on them back on January 21st, the total domination by the Magic on February 15th, and a surprising loss to the Mo Speights led Memphis Grizzlies on February 21st. Is the 21st just a bad day for the Sixers to be playing basketball each month? In each contest, number 21 on the Sixers, Thaddeus Young, has played subpar as well (6 points on 3-7 shooting against the Heat, and 8 points on 3-11 shooting against the Grizzlies). The Sixers as a team also had their longest losing streak of the season(five games) while trying to grab their 21st win. I think that every player on the Sixers needs to stay away from the black-jack tables for a while, because that number has been nothing but trouble for the team this season. Not to mention, on March 21st the Sixers play in one of their most anticipated match-ups of the season when Jeremy Lin’s Knicks come to town and on April 21st the Sixers are set to head out to play the currently third best team in the East, the Indiana Pacers. Maybe Elton Brand should switch his number 42 with Young’s 21, considering he’s only half the player he used to be. I’m going to mark it down as the curse of Samuel Dalembert though who currently wears number 21 with the Rockets. As if Sammy didn’t hurt this franchise enough already…
Besides the curse however, the most blatant problem which the Sixers have shown lately has been their inability to close games. In Sixers games with a final margin of seven points or less, the Sixers record is 2-10. This means that the Sixers are either blowing teams out, or choking when it matters most. I think a fair number in terms of a blowout in the NBA is 10 points. The Sixers have won 18 of their 22 games by 10 or more points. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Sixers have only lost five games by 10 or more points. This is an incredible statistic, but also very troubling. This means that outside of the 23 games that we can disregard as blowouts, the Sixers record is a measly 4-10 in relatively close games. Of those 14 games, 11 of them were against teams which held a .500 or better record (two of the three teams that didn’t make the cut are Portland who stands at 18-19, and Utah with 17-19…not too shabby). That means that the Sixers have lost to one bad opponent in a close game all season. That was Deron Williams and the 11-26 New Jersey Nets who back on January 25th took the Sixers to overtime and showed Sixer guards what a real closer looks like.
For the Sixers, Doug Collins went with the usual dose of Andre Iguodala early in the season as a closer (who clanked an ill-advised threes off the iron in the teams first loss of the year against the Blazers). Recently he switched to Lou Williams who missed five shots in the fourth quarter against the Thunder(when the team held a late lead), didn’t box out Russell Westbrook who pulled down some crucial offensive boards, and gave away the ball to Kevin Durant during the Sixers final shot to tie. Every analyst is now wondering what move Collins will make the next time. Do you go back to Lou who just cost the team a game? Do you try your luck at a player like Thaddeus Young who has shown before that he can handle pressure (against Dwight Howard in the playoffs none-the-less, the year the Magic went to the finals). Do you give the ball to the city-proclaimed “future of the franchise” in Jrue Holiday to give him not only more confidence, but give him a reason to play his best basketball every night? If the Sixers do indeed have a closer on this team, he hasn’t shown his face yet and come playoff time this is something which will make or break this Sixers team. Every great team has a guy who can takeover a game in crunch time. These are the Kobes, Lebrons, Durants, Dirks, and Roses of the League. Obviously the Sixers don’t have a player quite as special as that group, but the Sixers have arguably more talent than each of those teams as a unit. Do the right thing Doug, we’re counting on you.
If the Sixers have lost so much to quality competition this season, then the next question to ask is what quality competition have they beaten? The Sixers have beaten five teams this season who hold a record of .500 or better. They beat the Hawks twice, the Magic, the Lakers, the Bulls, and the Pacers. Three of these victories are questionable however. The Magic were playing without Jameer Nelson(who played a big role in the teams recent domination of the Sixers), the Bulls were playing without All-Star Luol Deng and sharp-shooter Richard Hamilton, and the Pacers played without their leading scorer Danny Granger as well as a solid energy guy off the bench in George Hill. So looking through each game, the Sixers truly won three of these games fair and square. The other three games come with asterisks attached to them. What if Granger, Jameer, and Deng had played? The Sixers already found out how much different the Magic are as a team with Jameer in the line-up, and in the next 10 days they’ll find out how much different the Bulls and Pacers are with Deng and Granger in the line-ups.
A win against the Bulls tonight and it’s almost like hitting the reset button on the season. It will automatically bring the Sixers back to February 1st again when they made a statement win that brought renewed excitement to the team. The Sixers now stand at number five on John Hollingers power rankings, and for Marc Stein? All the way down to number 13. The flavor is fading fast and now is the time to re-boot. It’s no longer acceptable to lose to a good team in the final five minutes. It’s no longer acceptable to shoot ill-advised jumpers early in shot-clocks. It’s no longer acceptable to play iso Lou in the fourth. The Sixers are where they are through team basketball. It’s the identity of the team and the only way this team can put itself back on the map. It’s the second half of the season, it’s March madness, spring is in the air, and Kim Kardashian is back on the market. Start tonight against the Bulls, continue against the division rival Celtics and Knicks, and maybe just maybe by the time you face Miami again you can close out the Heat in the fourth this time and shock the League once again. February is in the past, make Philadelphia believe once again.