Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Spirit Of 76ers

WHEN WE LAST LEFT our merry young band of Philly Sixers last Wednesday night, they were holding off a furious Denver Nuggets rally in the third quarter. Eventually they regained the lead and put Allen Iverson, Camelo Anthony and the rest of the Nuggets away for the narrow 115-113 win. Iverson had hit a loooooooong 3-pointer -- 27 feet long, to be exact -- to tie the game at 113. But as has been the case in the 76ers' recent hot streak, they've been finishing off the close games. On this night it was Slammin' Sammy Dalambert, the Haitian Sensation, who hit the winning lay-up.

But then two days later, they had their first real clunker in about two months, dropping one on the road to Orlando 113-95. The Magic just shot the lights out, hitting 41 of 77 shots from the field, including a sizzling 14-23 from beyond the 3-point line. Saturday the Sixers returned home to face the desperate New Jersey Nets, a team who owned them as recently as last year. The 91-87 win evened the Sixers' record at 34-34 heading into the Monday night showdown in Boston, with the Celtics holding the sport's best mark at 55-14. Well, now it's 55-15 after Philly's 95-90 win, moving the Sixers into sole possession of second place. Not that the 76ers are gonna catch Boston for the Atlantic Division lead, but should the teams meet in the playoffs, it has to be a positive knowing they can beat them on their home court.

The 76ers outscored Boston 29-19 in the decisive fourth quarter, which isn't supposed to happen. Also not in the script is the 76ers' sudden ability to get to the foul line at such a frequent rate. Last night Philly once again had a huge advantage at the free throw line, more than doubling Boston from the line; the Sixers shot 30-44 from the line, while Boston only shot 20 total free throws, converting 15. And that's been the case during the recent streak, which has seen the Sixers win 18 out of their last 23 to climb to the 6th seed in the Eastern playoff race.

The free throw numbers don't just come out of a hat, at least since disgraced NBA ref Tim Donaghy was forced to hang up his crooked whistle; they reflect a few things based on the Sixers' quality play of late. First off, if you're going to the line that means you're usually driving to the basket instead of relying on jumpers. Second, you're boxing out and the other team is having to go through you to get to the rebound. And third, more specifically, it's Sixers' C Sam Dalabert finally learning to play without getting into foul trouble of his own.

Against Boston, as I said, the Sixers shot 24 more free throws than Boston; against the Nets it was 10 more; even in the Orlando loss, the Sixers shot 7 more free throws; and then before that, it was 12 more than Denver and 9 more than San Antonio, and any team with Tim Duncan is gonna get to that line.

I really started to take notice of this trend after the Sixers beat the Bulls in Chicago on the 14th. Philly shot a startling 40-44 from the line (versus only 18-20 for the home team that night). You're gonna win a few ballgames on the road when you can shoot 24 more free throws than your opponent, as even old Jumpin' Jimmy Naismith would tell you if he wasn't already in OT, if you get my drift.

But back to reality, the Sixers have a decent chance of catching at least one team ahead of them in the playoff standings, the 36-33 Washington Wizards, for the fifth seed. Which still wouldn't get homecourt advantage in that first round, most likely against either 3rd-seed Orlando or 4th-seed Cleveland.

Last night, for one night at least, the Sixers proved they could play with the biggest of the big boys. During this hot streak, as well as point guard Andre Miller and C Sam Dalambert have played, their best player night in and night out has been Andre Iguadola. Last night was no exception, as AI2 scored 10 straight points during an incredible 19-0 fourth-quarter run that pulled Philly ahead of Boston.

Count the Celtics themselves among NBA players impressed by the Sixer resurgence. "They will be a dangerous team in the playoffs," noted Paul Pierce after his team fell to Philly in a nationally televised game (at least on cable). Finally the rest of the country will get to see a Sixers team that, outside of Houston, may be the league's hottest team heading into the postseason. With promising but unknown kids like Thaddeus Young, Lou Williams and Willie Green contributing nightly and playing major roles, one thing you can't call this young, emerging Philadelphia team heading into the playoffs is overexposed.

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