When the Philadelphia 76ers brought Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes back, they ensured a level of continuity heading into what was sure to be a hectic abbreviated season. Many viewed this continuity as a distinct advantage, and it has been, but it hasn't been their only edge.
The Sixers are currently leading the league in defensive efficiency and they're third in offensive. They're a game-and-a-half ahead of the Knicks and Celtics for first place in the Atlantic Division, they're currently riding a four-game win streak and they will play 16 of their next 20 games at home. They are in the driver's seat to put a strangle hold on the Atlantic Division before Valentine's Day, and the formula they're using right now is producing demonstrative, blow-out wins.
Granted, they haven't faced stiff competition to this point (Portland and Utah are the only teams with winning records, and they lost to both of them), but they have had a difficult schedule. Their first five games were on the road, and they've played a pair of back-to-backs already (with a back-to-back-to-back beginning tonight). They're winning, they're winning big, and there's a consistent theme in their games which bears watching.
The continuity is an advantage which has helped, you can see it in the team basketball they've played. The extra pass, the fluidity in their offense, the crisp rotations on the defensive end. There was no learning curve once the season began, they seemingly picked up right where they left off, as a unit, and haven't looked back since. Their biggest advantages, however, are their youth and their depth. Doug Collins is doing a great job of juicing every last drop out of these three advantages.
After watching the first seven games, there's a theme emerging. In virtually every game, the Sixers look like a better conditioned boxer. They trade blows for the first couple of rounds, giving a little more than they're taking, and then when it gets to the late rounds, they don't slow down. They don't let up. They keep hitting and hitting and hitting until their opponents can't or won't get up from the canvas. Collins has an eight-man rotation he trusts, and he can mix and match those eight guys to play a number of different styles. Most importantly, he can keep throwing fastballs at the other team for 48 minutes, every night. Most teams experience a drop off when they go to their benches, they hope their second units can tread water while they rest their starters. This ins't the case for the Sixers. When their second unit comes in, they don't let up. They may attack in a different way, but they're always attacking. The overall talent level of the second the unit is very close to the first, possibly even superior in certain areas, and the opposing team never gets a chance to rest. Never gets a chance to relax. They have to scratch and claw to get points against the first unit's defense, and take extra care of the ball to keep them out of transition. Then the second unit comes in and they have to deal with explosive athleticism and endless energy.
The question right now is whether this formula will work against the good teams in the league, and then against the elite teams in the league. There's reason to be doubtful, mainly because when you're playing against a couple of superstars, they've got athleticism of their own to contend with, and the best defense in the world will only slow them down. On the other hand, there's reason to be hopeful as well. Look at the best teams in the league. The teams everyone gets to watch on TNT and ESPN a couple of times a week. With a few exceptions, they're all very top heavy. Some of them (Boston) barely have five legitimate players on their entire roster. Against a fully-rested and healthy Boston team, where Doc Rivers could count on 170 minutes from Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, the Sixers might not have a great chance, but when you're talking about a regular season game where the Celts have played 5 games in the past week and Rivers will be lucky to get 120 minutes out of those guys? Well, in that situation, the Sixers are going to run right over the Celtics, and make them look old doing it.
The Sixers will face two tests this week in the Indiana Pacers (tonight) and the New York Knicks (Wednesday). The Pacers have some depth of their own, but don't seem to have enough offensive firepower to keep up with the Sixers. The Knicks are as shallow as they come (3-deep?), but they will be well-rested while the Sixers will play their third game in three nights, on the road.
The early returns have been nothing but positive from the Sixers, it's going to be interesting to see if they can keep running teams off the court as they play five games in the next six days. It all starts with a game against the 6-2 Pacers tonight at the Wells Fargo Center.