The change in the 76ers from last season to this season has been dramatic. But ESPN NBA analyst Tim Legler says the turnaround really isn't all that complicated.
"I think the biggest difference between this team and the team we've seen the past 3 or 4 years is they just take much more pride in defending," said Legler, at the Wells Fargo Center last night for the Oklahoma City-Sixers game. "They are more physical on cuts. They play passing lanes. They have a game plan with their traps and their rotations, which is what good NBA teams do.
"When you watch the top teams in this league play, they stand out defensively - how much they communicate, how much commitment they have to the effort across the board. You didn't see that at all from this team the past few years. That's why I think the fans started to dwindle; the environment was bad. They didn't feel like they were getting an honest effort out of these guys. They are this year, and that's why people are coming back again, and that's why they're so excited."
Legler thinks the positive changes come from one common source.
"It's 100 percent because of Doug Collins," he said. "He's basically got the same roster, he basically has the same guys who were here last year. He's just getting so much more out of them. It's not even from a production standpoint. I just talked to [Thunder coach] Scott Brooks, and he agreed that they are the only team in the league above .500 that has no one averaging more than 15 points. It's just so well balanced. It's not even like anybody's having a great year offensively, it's just they're sharing the load."
Void of a true superstar, the Sixers have had to rely on the balance Legler speaks about. Before the season, Collins said he envisioned this team having seven players who would average double figures in scoring. That, Legler said, is what makes the Sixers so dangerous.
"The biggest thing is how they've handled end of games," he said. "It's not on Andre Iguodala to make jump shots, which is what I think this team relied on a lot in the past. They would put it in his hands, run an isolation, spread out and he would wind up taking a lot of contested jump shots at the end of games, and that's not his game. You're seeing this year a lot more of what he really is, when he's at his best, which is, I think, a creator. He's a guy who creates opportunities for other players, who has an all-around game and can score. For the most part, they are not going to him exclusively at the end of games, and they've been a much better closing team as a result."
It all starts with Jrue
This stretch of games, which includes five in 7 days, before a trip out West for four more, is a tough test for the Sixers. No one has had and will continue to have a tougher road than point guard Jrue Holiday.
Collins noted that Holiday covered Golden State's Stephen Curry on Sunday, Indiana's Darren Collison on Tuesday and Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook last night, with Boston's Rajon Rondo tomorrow, Utah's Devin Harris on Monday, and Portland's Andre Miller a week from Saturday.
"It never gets easy at that position," Collins said.
Which is why he is keeping a close eye on his 20-year-old point guard and just how many minutes he will be logging.
"I'm keeping my eye on Jrue to try to keep him as fresh and as sharp as possible," he said. "He gets our defense started and offensively he gets us into the stuff we wanted to do. He's so important to what we want to get accomplished."
In Collison and Westbrook, Holiday has faced two former players from UCLA, where he attended college. He and Collison were backcourt mates for Holiday's only season there.
"There's no question [that playing against those guys is special]," Collins said. "When I coached Christian Laettner in Washington, whenever we played someone from Duke he was going to be the king of Duke, nobody was ever going to beat him. There is a lot of pride when you play against somebody who you went to school with."
Center Spencer Hawes was nursing a sore and swollen left ankle last night. He tweaked it during Tuesday's win in Indiana.
"It's not too bad," Hawes said before the game. "I hurt them worse earlier this season."
Hawes got treatment before the game and was in the starting lineup.
Also, Collins said Elton Brand is getting used to playing with the splint on his right pinkie, which he dislocated twice last week.
"I think it's getting better," Collins said. "We're trying to keep his minutes down if we can and also his practice time. E.B. has been such a workhorse for us all year long." *
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