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Bob Cooney: Sixerville: Sixers changing into a competitive team

TWENTY-FIVE games does not a season make in the NBA, but it has given us plenty of insight as to the identity of this 76ers team. New head coach Doug Collins said in the preseason that it would take some time to figure out his players and how they best fit together.

Jodie Meeks has been a spark off the bench for the Sixers during their run of five wins in six games. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Jodie Meeks has been a spark off the bench for the Sixers during their run of five wins in six games. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)Read more

TWENTY-FIVE games does not a season make in the NBA, but it has given us plenty of insight as to the identity of this 76ers team. New head coach Doug Collins said in the preseason that it would take some time to figure out his players and how they best fit together.

Again, 25 games is not even the first third of the season, but Collins has tinkered and tweaked, and in the process turned a 3-13 start into seven wins in the past nine games. One of the main reasons for the revolution has been the team's defense.

In the seven wins, the Sixers have held opponents to only 39.2 percent shooting from the floor and an average 82 points a game. Stack those numbers against the NBA leaders. Going into last night's games, Boston and Miami led the league in fewest points allowed at 91. Miami had the best in field goal percentage by an opponent at 42.6 percent. The Sixers are well below both of those numbers in their past seven wins.

Since the season began there have been many transformations by players on this team. Most notably:

* Jodie Meeks: He is the story of the young season so far. Since his insertion into the starting lineup seven games ago, the Sixers have scored 98.6 points a game and Meeks has averaged 14.1. But more than numbers, Meeks brings spacing out on the court, something this offense painfully needs. For a team filled with players who are at their best offensively when they are driving to the basket - Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young, Lou Williams and Evan Turner - spacing is paramount. Meeks' ability to hit long-range jumpers extends defenses, creates creases and affords a team of slashers to do just that.

* Thaddeus Young: Collins has done a terrific job of - cue the Andy Reid tape - putting Young in the right positions to play his best. Young has been juggling playing at both the small and power forward spots, not an easy task. His advantage against bigger opponents is his quickness, against smaller ones, his moves around the basket.

Young has basically scratched his outside shooting, instead relying on power dribbles to the basket when the team is in a half-court set, and filling lanes when out on the break. Holiday recently expressed shock at just how fast Young is when the team is fastbreaking. Absent for just about all of last season, confidence has returned to the 4-year pro. It is blatantly obvious on the court just how good he is feeling about his game. Collins commended Young after Wednesday's win over the Clippers for screaming words of encouragement from the bench during the Sixers third-quarter burst. It was something you wouldn't have seen from him last season or earlier this year. Confidence will do that to a player.

* Spencer Hawes: When the newly acquired 7-1 center was saddled with a creaky back early in the preseason and forced to miss 16 days, no one knew just how much the injury would affect him. He was back in time for the start of the regular season, but out of shape and without the type of feel for his outside shot that makes him an offensive threat. He struggled during the early part of the season and spent most games watching instead of participating. That has changed. Dramatically.

A very cerebral person, Hawes knew why he was struggling and what he had to do to get back to his best form. He has done it and is now reaping the benefits, which are hitting his outside shots consistently, grabbing and holding tough rebounds in the lane and blocking shots. He talked of having that "second hop" back after Wednesday's win, meaning being able to spring right back up after his feet hit the floor. An early season target for the home crowd's disdain, Hawes is turning into a fan favorite.

* Andre Iguodala: When Collins took over this team in May, Iguodala was about to launch into a grueling run with Team USA. The brutal summer schedule, which ended in a World Championship gold medal, took its toll on the Sixers swingman, and he reported to training camp with a battered body and, no doubt, a tad of mental fatigue. A wrist and then an Achilles' tendon injury forced Iguodala to do something he has seldom done in his career - miss games.

Iguodala has been back for 12 games now since his inactive stint, and, especially lately, has been everything this team and Collins needs from him. In the 12 games, Iguodala has averaged 15 points, 7.1 rebounds and 6.1 assists. He is still the team's best defender and is probably the most steadying influence the team has on the floor.

His 13.7 points a game probably isn't close to what many expected and might not be too near what he'll finish the season averaging, but his other contributions have been a key to the recent success of the team.

* Elton Brand: The rugged power forward really hasn't changed much from Day 1 this season, but is light-years ahead of where he was a year ago. Brand was still trying to overcome the effects of a shoulder and Achilles' tendon injury last season, and his clashes with coach Eddie Jordan didn't help to move that along. Now fully recovered from a pair of injuries that cost him most of two seasons, and on track with his new coach, Brand is putting up good numbers (15.5 points, 8.2 rebounds) and is making his trademark short jumpers.

Where he is most valued, more than numbers, is with his attitude and professionalism. Each game is a fight to him, each possession prized, and each defensive stance critical. When Clippers rookie stud Blake Griffin came to the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday, you just knew that Brand couldn't wait to make a statement against the kid. He did, with a hard foul in the third quarter that sent Griffin sprawling.

No doubt Brand is heading into the twilight of his career, but he will fight that as much as he does for a loose ball. Early in the season, Collins made a statement that his team would be more balanced because it was lacking a 20-10 guy. Less than a minute later, he got a text from Brand. "Don't count me out, yet," it read.

So what does it all mean after 25 games? Well, it is clear Collins has brought back to life some players who seemed comatose most of last season. Collins said many things before the season, and through the first 25 games, most have come to fruition. When players notice that, it makes them listen a little better, play a little harder, increases their desire to win perhaps just a little bit more.

And now his club is about to trudge into an eight-game road trip, one that Collins has been dreading since the schedule came out. The seven wins in nine games have told us some things, mostly positive. But those wins also have come against teams that had a combined 52-90 record when the Sixers faced them.

This road stretch certainly won't define this team entirely. But it certainly could go a long way in doing so eventually.



Tonight vs. Los Angeles Lakers, 7 o'clock

Comcast SportsNet, WIP (610-AM)

The skinny: When aren't the Lakers hot? They come to Philly as winners of three straight and six of their last seven. Against Indiana on Wednesday, they shot 61 percent from the floor in the first half and coasted to the win. They also outrebounded the Pacers, 51-29. Center Andrew Bynum is back after missing the first 24 games due to knee surgery.

Tomorrow at Orlando, 7 o'clock

Comcast SportsNet, WIP (610-AM)

The skinny: This is the first of eight straight road games for the Sixers. The Magic have won eight straight regular-season games against the Sixers and 10 of the last 12 at home. Dwight Howard is always worth watching and is putting up his patented big numbers (21.5 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.4 blocks).

Tuesday at Chicago, 8 o'clock

Comcast SportsNet, WIP (610-AM)

The skinny: The Bulls have won seven straight games, spurred by the return of forward Carlos Boozer, who has healed from a broken hand. But forward Joakim Noah appears to be out for a while with a bad thumb.

Wednesday at Boston, 7:30

Comcast SportsNet, WIP (610-AM)

The skinny: The Celtics have won 12 in a row with their win over Atlanta last night. But they are a little hampered by the injury bug, with Shaquille O'Neal resting a bum knee and Rajon Rondo lost for at least a week or 2 with a sprained left ankle. The Celts stung the Sixers with a one-point loss last week on a last-second shot by Kevin Garnett.


34.8: That's the field goal percentage that the Sixers have held opponents to in the past three games.

7.1: That's how many rebounds Spencer Hawes is averaging over the past 13 games.

2.6: That's how many rebounds Hawes averaged in the first 12 games of the season.