For the 76ers, playing young, playing fast is suddenly, unexpectedly, so last season.
For whatever reasons, the adjustment to having a post player, even if that player is Elton Brand with career averages of 20 points and 10 rebounds, has been more difficult than anyone might have anticipated.
That explains why point guard Andre Miller has been shooting more and penetrating less. And it explains why, even in his 15th NBA season, Donyell Marshall can still be a factor. If the Sixers are ever to open up the middle, they're going to have to score from the perimeter. Not just with Andre Iguodala driving hard and drawing fouls. Actually making jump shots, a concept just about every other team seemingly has mastered.
Brand is likely to be back from his strained right hamstring Wednesday night, in time to face the Cleveland Cavaliers. It seems just as likely that Marshall will remain in the same capacity he stepped into in the last two games, Saturday night's 95-84 loss to the New Jersey Nets and the previous evening's wild, 96-91 victory over the Detroit Pistons.
Marshall, 35, was signed as a combination deep reserve and in-uniform mentor, but had been doing mostly mentoring. Before coach Maurice Cheeks called his name late in the third period against the Pistons, Marshall had appeared in just three games; he had not played in the previous nine, and had been inactive for seven of those.
He essentially saved the Pistons game with eight points, three rebounds and a block in 13 minutes, 35 seconds, draining two of the three three-pointers the team had all night. He ignited the Sixers again against the Nets with 13 points, five rebounds, a steal and an assist in 15:48, but there wasn't much he - or any of his teammates - could do to prevent the visitors from raining 11 triples. The Sixers couldn't make shots (36.4 percent, second lowest of the season), couldn't get key stops, and went the entire second half without scoring on the fastbreak.
Still, Marshall's back-to-back performances showed that Cheeks has some resources that need to be exploited a little more. That has also become obvious with some encouraging work from rookie Marreese Speights, who has started the last two games in place of Brand, and with some veteran leadership and defense from 35-year-old third center Theo Ratliff.
"You don't want to say, 'It's early,' '' Marshall said. "We're at 20 games of the season. It goes so quick, but I think we're moving in the right direction. We're not winning, but I think we're moving in the right direction. I think that's what's important.
"We're continuing to find ourselves. You had a team last year that ran, and now Elton's coming in and you've got to try and find him some shots. You've just got to find a mixture in there. It's hard incorporating six new people. That's why we're preaching patience. We're running out of patience, too, but we've got to be patient."
To Marshall, "moving in the right direction" and "being patient" involve communicating more on the court, trying to get some steals, force the turnovers that allow you to run and quicken the pace of the game. Those elements help create a comfort zone and confidence.
When they beat the Pistons, coming from 11 points down in the fourth quarter, Marshall said, "We didn't always know what we were doing, but we communicated. We scrambled. It might not have looked right, but communicating, [telling teammates] 'Move here . . . Go there,' helps. Those are things people don't see but that we notice as players."
If the Sixers, who have now lost four straight at home and six of eight overall, are to turn this around they're eventually going to have to resume playing young and fast, and find a way to incorporate Brand's specific skills. In the meantime, they're going to have to reinvent struggling center Samuel Dalembert (0-for-6, scoreless against the Nets), see whether there's an energy role similar to last season for Reggie Evans and find niches for Kareem Rush and Royal Ivey.
"The old heads represented," Ratliff said after the victory over the Pistons, but it's time to rev the tempo back up and play the way they had intended. They were supposed to be among the most improved teams in the East, and instead are 9-12 and not looking particularly good doing it. *
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