If you’re a Sixers fan, keep one play in mind: Lou Williams curling around Spencer Hawes for the handoff, not receiving it, and then Williams cutting backdoor, collecting a perfectly-timed bounce pass from Hawes and finishing at the rim.
I know a lot of you jumped aboard the elevator that was carrying Sixers’ fans to the 40-win floor, and perhaps last night’s performance had you peering down the stairwell toward the lower landings, but don’t let your confidence drop too far.
My prediction last week was 34-32 (you can read that post here: 34 Much More Likely Than 40). The Portland Trail Blazers are very good, let’s not forget. And last night’s 107-103 loss included much more good than bad for the Sixers. The good stuff – Hawes’ play, Williams’ scoring, Iguodala’s aggressiveness and commitment, the team’s resiliency – are the bricks upon which future wins will be stacked. The bad – specifically the 20 turnovers and Holiday’s struggles – can be chalked up as early-season mistakes that will eventually melt away.
Let’s return to the aforementioned backdoor play between Hawes and Williams. Who cares, right? Monday was one decent night for Hawes; who knows how he’ll play Wednesday night at the Phoenix Suns. Sure, I can buy that thinking, but I believe on Monday night we caught a glimpse of how Hawes will play all year; it’s building off of the way he played during last year’s playoff series against the Miami Heat.
This matters for precisely one reason: Hawes can pass, is willing to pass, and the Sixers’ roster is filled with willing recipients.
This opens up the entire floor for the Sixers. It will also boost the Sixers’ overall shooting percentage and add points to the bottom line of everyone on the floor. The reason that backdoor play is important is because it created a high-percentage chance, one going toward the rim, for Williams. And the possibility of duplication will be gas in the tank for every single Sixer who will subsequently runs that cut: Williams, definitely, but also Holiday and Evan Turner and Andre Iguodala. Everyone on the floor now knows that when Hawes possesses the ball, movement is rewarded.
Think back on the last few years, specifically when Samuel Dalembert was running that center spot. Dalembert wanted to drop those backdoor dimes, but he didn’t actually possess the passing ability to complete the play. Because of that, every guard or forward who came for the handoff knew the handoff was really the only option. There were dozens of times that, say, Iguodala would cut off the post for the handoff, not receive it, and then continue his cut through the lane. Every once in a while, Dalembert would fire a backdoor bounce pass that Iguodala had no idea was coming. I can’t think of one time — although certainly it must have happened once or twice — where there was a smooth, fully conscious, executed backdoor with Dalembert as the axis. This is not to say Dalembert didn’t do plenty of other, important things on the floor — just that his passing did not unlock offensive lanes.
Hawes’ passing does. And with a roster filled with athletic slashers and pull-up jump shooters (Turner and Williams, specifically), Hawes’ upgraded passing unlocks 20 percent of the floor. What’s even more important is that Hawes appears to love passing. He appears to love being a 7-footer who can drop a soft backdoor pass. So don’t look for the passing to stop anytime soon.
OK, so that’s the good from Monday night. There was a lot of it: Hawes, Williams, Iguodala, the resiliency on the road. Doug Collins will trim the fat: the 20 turnovers won’t continue; the six turnovers from Holiday, the poor decision making and lack of aggressiveness, won’t continue.
This season, there will be a dozen games that will decide the Sixers’ fate. There will be a dozen either-way games, the outcomes of which will either make the Sixers a 31-35 team (if they go 2-10 in those games) or a 36-30 team (if they go 7-5) or a 39-27 (if they go 10-2). Last night was one of those games. And what (or who) will be the difference?
As I wrote last week, I still think Elton Brand is the linchpin. On Monday night, he played 28 minutes, scored 10 points, and grabbed 8 rebounds. That’s fine, but that’s not good. That’s not enough production to allow the Sixers to overcome 20 turnovers, a bad night from Holiday, and a non-existent night from Jodie Meeks. Brand isn’t sharp yet. Here’s a portion of last week’s post: “This could come as a surprise, because it certainly surprises me, but Brand could be the linchpin between a 32-win season and a 39-win season. Not Evan Turner, not Jrue Holiday, and not Andre Iguodala. Brand doesn’t yet have his basketball legs; he doesn’t yet seem ready to play 32 to 35 minutes a night. If Collins is forced to downgrade Brand’s minutes, he’s plugging that gap with Young and Vucevic. That lineup might sound youthful and promising on one level, but it also sounds overwhelming (as in, the Sixers would be overwhelmed on the defensive glass) on another. Watch Brand closely on Monday night. If the Sixers are going to be a 39-27 team, Brand will need to play 35 minutes a night and average around 16 points and 10 rebounds. If he slips to 28 minutes a night, with averages of 12 points and 7 rebounds, that’s going to cost the Sixers — over the course of what will be a grueling 66-game schedule — a handful of wins.”
Monday night’s mistakes will gradually melt away. The 20 turnovers will wither to 13-15 a game. Holiday’s 4 for 10 shooting with only 2 assists will improve to 7 for 12 with 6 assists. But the front court — specifically Brand, with strong backup minutes from Young and, at some point soon, Vucevic — is where games will be won or lost.