Inconsistency plaguing Sixers early in season
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On three different occasions last Friday night at the TD Boston Garden, Celtics veterans Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett summoned whatever basketball savvy they had and made hard-charging runs at the 76ers.
Pierce dazzled with an array of shots that, if they didn’t fall, landed him on the foul line. Garnett was a presence in the paint, intimidating the Sixers from driving too deep to face him. Then Rondo, the stat-stuffing point guard, dished out an NBA season-high 20 assists.
Three All-Stars and NBA champions taking three different runs at the Sixers…
And it still wasn’t good enough.
The Sixers held off the Celtics for a 106-100 victory that night thanks in part to 25 points and 11 rebounds from Evan Turner and 21 points and 14 assists from Jrue Holiday. The team also shot nearly 50 percent from the field, out-rebounded the Celtics and got buckets in the paint.
If there was a game to pack away in a time capsule through the first eight games of the NBA season for the Sixers, the one in Boston was it.
The next night, the Sixers won in double-digits in Toronto to finish the three-game road trip unbeaten. On the horizon was a five-game homestand against Milwaukee, winless Detroit, Utah, Cleveland and Toronto.
In other words, it was time to go on a winning streak.
Only that’s not what happened.
Instead the Sixers were beaten by the Bucks thanks to an extraordinary performance by Brandon Jennings, who poured in 33 points. Two nights later, the flat and lifeless Sixers were embarrassed by the Pistons by 19 points in a game where they were manhandled in the paint and pushed around on the boards.
A sleepless night and a practice session later, coach Doug Collins was still searching for answers after Thursday’s practice at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
“I have no answers why we are so flat,” Collins said. “This is the same team that went on the road and won all three games. We played a great second half in New Orleans and we went into the Boston Garden and won the game. We went into Toronto and had a slow start, but our bench came in and we won that game.
“I looked up and said to our coaches, ‘We have no energy.’ And eight games into the season you wonder why.”
Could the energy be sapped out of the Sixers by the physical play of the opponents? A look at the videotape of Wednesday night’s loss showed that the Pistons fed the ball into the low post 65 times. That’s more than 20 times higher than other team this year.
So after two games of a homestand against a pair of second-division teams, what is it we’ve learned about the 76ers?
One thing is they really need Andrew Bynum to take care of the paint. Clearly the Sixers were built around the idea that Bynum would be the man down low from which the offense and defense will flow.
Another thing is that without Bynum, the Sixers are still searching for their identity. They are a team that can run the fast break, only they have been stymied in transition. They also are a team with some of the best long-range shooters in the NBA, only the shots aren’t dropping.
“Unfortunately, I knew there were going to be growing pains,” Collins said. “We started the season and we found out that Andrew is not going to be able to play and we’ve adjusted to that. Then [Jason Richardson] sprained his ankle, Kwame Brown is hurt and we played without them. But last night they came back and we’re still trying to figure out who we are.”
Moreover, any semblance of consistency has been more elusive than the presence in the paint. After scoring 25 points against the Celtics, Turner has averaged 6.3 points and shot 28.6 percent in 29 minutes in the three games since. Holiday is fourth in the league with 8.8 assists per night even though he leads the NBA with 43 total turnovers.
Perhaps most problematic is the team’s shooting. Though Dorell Wright is in the top 10 in three-pointers made and attempted, the Sixers are 29th in the NBA in shooting percentage. In wins, the Sixers shoot 43 percent from the field; they shoot just 37 percent in losses.
“We’ve shown flashes where we’ve gone in and done things well, but we have to do it consistently,” Collins said. “It has to start with how we start games each night.”
What can the Sixers do to iron things out? One, as Collins pointed out, is to start games better. So far this season they have been outscored in the first quarter in all but two of eight games. Moreover, the Sixers have gotten handled in the fourth quarter, outscoring their opponents just twice this year.
Collins says he wants to find a firmer rotation. Lately, he's been getting significant minutes for six different perimeter players and, according to the coach, that’s one too many. So even though it’s early in the season, look for Collins to tighten up which players get playing time.
“The disappointing thing was the lack of energy. That was disappointing to me,” Collins said. “One thing that I’ve always tried to pride myself on in this city is that the team we put out on the floor every night is reflective of hard work, blue collar and toughness and last night was not one of those nights.”
Regardless, eight games or 40 percent of a five-game homestand is hardly indicative of an NBA season. The Sixers will improve and Bynum will have a lot to do with that. Plus, after the last two nights, it’s tough to imagine a Collins-coached team to come out flat and lifeless for a second straight game.
“Maybe you need one of those nights sometimes,” Collins said. “Sometimes the answer is you just have to go out and play and be tough and take the fight to someone else.”