The Philadelphia 76ers piled up nine wins in their first 12 games of the season against mostly bad or injured teams. Their margin of victory was impressive, and beating bad teams by double digits is what elite teams do, but there was still a sense of trepidation from loyal fans and national media alike. It's tough to buy in until a team is truly tested. Until they start playing, and beating good teams. This week, the Sixers finally got to face a test. Unfortunately, the results were mixed.
On MLK day, the Sixers took care of a Milwaukee team that hadn't won a game on the road all season by 12 points. Then the first test came on Wednesday when the Denver Nuggets brought their 9-5 record into the WFC. The Sixers played the Nuggets to a draw through 48 minutes, but coughed the game up in overtime. A chance to not only beat a good team, but to close out a tight game slipped right through their fingers. It was good to see them compete with a good team, but the loss did little to put the doubts to rest.
Friday night, the 11-4 Atlanta Hawks came to Philly, riding a four-game win streak, but without their All Star center, Al Horford (Horford missed the entire win streak, as well). The Sixers smothered the Hawks and won the game going away, 90-76. The test was passed, but with an asterisk. Atlanta was certainly playing good basketball heading into the game, but there's still the "They didn't have Horford," voice in the back of people's heads. On the court, the Sixers did exactly what they've done all season, fought through every possession, especially on the defensive end. Andre Iguodala wouldn't let Joe Johnson touch the ball on the offensive end, and the bigs dared Josh Smith to shoot long jumpers all night (which he did, very poorly). Still, that nagging question lived on.
On Saturday night, the Sixers faced their biggest test of the early season. With no rest, they traveled to Miami to play a Heat team which hadn't played the night before. The Heat were without Dwyane Wade, but coming off back-to-back demonstrative wins over the Lakers and Spurs without Wade. The Sixers showed up early and played their brand of basketball. They pressured the ball, and dared the Heat to settle for long two-point jumpers in the first half. Unfortunately, the Heat hit most of the jumpers they were given. The Sixers starters had a hard time scoring, and the valiant effort from Evan Turner off the bench (14 points in the first half) was barely enough to keep the Sixers in the game through the first 24 minutes. In the second half, we saw something from this team we hadn't seen throughout the first 15 games. They were outclassed, out-hustled and systematically blown off the court. It all started when rookie Nikola Vucevic went down with a sprained knee. Spencer Hawes was already out, nursing an achilles sprain, so the Sixers were left with Tony Battie as their only option off the bench at the five. They quickly fell to pieces. The jumpers they gave the Heat in the first half suddenly turned into layups in the second half. Doug Collins essentially threw in the towel early in the fourth quarter when he called upon LaVoy Allen with the Sixers down by 13 points with 9:03 left in the game. Discretion may turn out to be the better part of valor for Collins. He didn't push Elton Brand's old legs on the second night of a back-to-back, but it appeared as though the rest of the guys on the floor got the message from their coach that the game was a lost cause. The Sixers went through the motions for the rest of the game, and let the score get away from them at the end.
There's no shame in losing to the Heat under those circumstances. It was expected, but this is the first time this year we saw the Sixers give up. It started with Collins and flowed from him to the players on the court. They stopped giving effort on the defensive end. They stopped moving the ball on the offensive end. It's a dangerous precedent to set because this team is only good when they're doing all the little things. When they don't give an inch, no matter what the score is. They don't have superstars to fall back on. They don't get calls from the refs to bail them out when they're trying to stop a run by the other team. They live on effort, execution and selfless play. They also haven't come far enough to be able to turn their intensity on and off at the drop of a hat. They need to maintain it, every game.
Starting tonight, against the suddenly semi-respectable Wizards (Washington beat OKC, then played the Nuggets and Celtics very tight over the weekend), the Sixers will need to rebound from their disappointing showing in Miami. They'll need to get the shoddy basketball they played against the Heat completely out of their system and get back on track. They have four games this week, all at home, and all against bad teams: Washington tonight, the Nets on Wednesday, the Bobcats on Friday and the Pistons on Saturday. Those teams have combined for a 14-53 record so far.
They may be without Spencer Hawes and Nikola Vucevic for a number of those games. It doesn't matter. They need to get back to playing the ball they played over the first 14 games, and they need to do it quickly. They have played a very easy schedule to this point. This week is even easier, then it will get much harder, very quickly. They need to put these teams away no because they end the season with an extremely unfavorable schedule, and more importantly, if they don't prove the Miami game a blip, they could sink back to .500 very quickly. This team isn't very far removed from the 41-41 team which was knocked out in the first round of the playoffs last season. The only way to move beyond that is to beat these teams. The best way to waste the momentum they built among their own fan base is to lay a couple of eggs on their home floor against the league's worst teams this week.
Doug Collins called these four games, "the most important stretch of the season for us so far," and that's not hyperbolic. Losing to the Nuggets and the Heat without Hawes is acceptable, dropping one or two of the upcoming four games, that's much harder to explain away. It starts tonight against John Wall and the Wizards.