It is the enduring curse to bear for Spencer Hawes, currently the starting center for the 76ers, that his game, even when he does good things, doesn't look all that good while he's doing them. And when he misfires or stumbles or plays poorly, well, he mostly looks like a tall guy who happens to be on a basketball court through no fault of his own.
This is unfair because Hawes has talent and works hard and probably has more strengths than weaknesses. Nevertheless, it is true. It is the reason Hawes doesn't get the benefit of the doubt from NBA officials, who are unconsciously wired to reward smooth, pleasing play. And it is the reason he is always one botched possession from hearing the disapproval of the fans.
Hawes didn't win any beauty contests again on Friday when the Sixers beat the Bulls, 79-74, to take the lead in their opening-round playoff series. He did win the game for the Sixers, however, if you consider his 21 points (27 percent of the team's total!), his nine rebounds, and his willingness to keep playing when the crowd at the Wells Fargo Center was encouraging him to retire for the evening.
"I was missing chippies out there," Hawes said after the game. "Coach tries to calm me down. He thinks I get too excited. He told me to calm down and let the game come to you."
When Hawes is frustrated by the game, when a big rebound eludes him because he is a step slow, or his shooting eye betrays him on a three-footer at the side of the rim, the situation is likely to worsen, according to coach Doug Collins. He has learned to take Hawes out of the game, as he did in Game 3, to settle him.
"Spencer gets down on himself. He's such a competitor," Collins said. "Sometimes I sit him down to relax him."
Collins needed Hawes to relax and come through Friday night, and it's fortunate for the Sixers that he shot 7 for 15 from the floor and 6 of 6 from the line, with the good, if not good-looking, far outweighing the bad this time.
The offensive game plan against Chicago called for the big men - Hawes, Lavoy Allen, Elton Brand, and Thaddeus Young - to take advantage of Chicago's determination to keep the guards out of the lane. For five days, the Sixers worked on little pick-and-pop moves for the big men, plays in which the frontcourt guys release from the post, take an easy pass, and bury a little 10-footer or so.
Collins knew those shots would be there because of how Chicago plays its defense. He knew exactly how to design the offense to produce that result. If you want to know why coaches are a little crazy, this is why. Everything Collins designed worked perfectly, all the shots were there, and Brand, Allen, and Young combined to shoot 2 for 16. Probably didn't try a shot more than 12 feet from the basket.
Well this was going to be a loss, and an ugly one at that. The Sixers had just 51 points after three quarters and were on their way to trailing by 14 early in the final period. When the Bulls kept getting offensive rebound after offensive rebound, the crowd booed the Sixers relentlessly.
"You just have to get a stop. Then one stop becomes two, becomes three," Hawes said. "We finally got some opportunities to get some easy buckets, and people made plays down the stretch."
Evan Turner made the biggest ones at the end, and that is what people remember, but Hawes lumbered around and scored 10 points in the fourth quarter, too. They might not have been awe-inspiring, but they counted.
The Sixers were helped by the fact that Chicago was dog tired near the end. Playing without Derrick Rose and then losing Joakim Noah midway through the third quarter, the Bulls were just trying to get to the border one step ahead of the posse. They didn't make it.
With Noah still on crutches Saturday, he seems like an unlikely participant Sunday when the series resumes and the Sixers could take command of things. The irony is that if Noah is out, and the Bulls are lacking their best inside presence, Collins could reward Hawes for his great game with a seat on the bench.
He probably won't, because Collins doesn't like to mess with a winning streak, but tinkering with the lineup to get more speed and early offense would certainly be a tempting option. Without Noah, the Bulls will consider shifting their offensive emphasis to the perimeter and hope for the best. That means the Sixers guards will be spread out on the court and there will be some long rebounds. The Sixers might be able to run again, which is what they do best, although not particularly Spencer Hawes.
"I told the team that when we're at our best is when we find the joy in playing and we're having fun," Collins said. "Michael Jordan always said greatness has no consequences. Shoot the ball, and if you miss it, just get back and play it again."
Fine and good for Michael Jordan to say. The Sixers are only sporadically great and their failings usually have grave consequences. They are in a nice spot right now, though. The other team is wounded, perhaps mortally, and a solid effort Sunday could very nearly finish the job.
Hawes can't be expected to score 21 points again, but he will give it a try. Even if the effort doesn't look like much, sometimes it still adds up that way.