ON A NIGHT that celebrates disguises, the 76ers did a very nice job of masking what is problematic about their offense. With Andrew Bynum still saddled with a bruised knee, there really isn't much of an offensive inside presence for the club. So the Sixers rely on defense, fastbreaks and three-point shooting.
It has been that way for the past few years for this team offensively, but this season the main deficiency is offset by a plethora of good outside shooters, alert passers and crafty penetrators. Wednesday, the shooting wasn't particularly good - in fact, it was downright poor (30-for-85, 35.3 percent). But the other areas and a terrific performance by Spencer Hawes carried the team to an 84-75 win over the Denver Nuggets, the first season-opening victor for the team since 2006.
"That was my welcome back to the East right there," said Dorell Wright, who spent six seasons in Miami before playing the last two in Golden State. "The East is all about getting those grind-out games when you don't play that well on offense, shooting 35 percent and you get wins? That's impressive and lets you know how good we are on defense and getting stops when we need them, getting rebounds and Spencer doing a great job of blocking shots and all. It was definitely a grind-out game. Defense wins championships; everybody knows that."
Hawes, playing a new role as a second-unit player for coach Doug Collins, had game highs of 16 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots. He was so dominant at opportune times that the fans gloriously chanted his name at one point and roared "MVP" at another.
"It's great," Hawes said. "We know how great the fans are here in this town, and we want to be the kind of team they can embrace night in and night out whether we win or lose. There's a style of play that we want to be consistent with that the fans can appreciate."
That style Wednesday included forcing the Nuggets into 22 turnovers that led to 24 points for the Sixers, and limited them to 37.5 percent shooting from the floor.
Collins had said during training camp that with all the good shooting he now has, he was looking to get a total of 40 points from a combination of three-pointers made and foul shots made. While the team hit only seven of its 25 treys, it did make 17 of 21 foul shots for a close-enough 38 points.
"Denver makes it tough for you to score; they switch; they're incredibly athletic," Collins said. "The first half, we gave up 13 offensive rebounds, and I told our guys if we did not rebound, we could not win the game. In the second half, we gave up three, which was the difference in the game.
"Spencer was brilliant. Thad [Young] was terrific. Jrue [Holiday] hit a big three-point play when we needed it to give us a four-point lead, and then we ran a play and he hit Spencer for a baseline jump shot to give us a cushion."
Young finished with 13 points, and Wright had 14. Jason Richardson also chipped in 10 points and four steals.
After the Sixers built a 14-point lead early in the fourth quarter, Denver used a 16-3 run to pull within 71-70 with 4 minutes, 41 seconds to play. Holiday then hit a running 13-footer while getting fouled. That started a 9-1 spurt by the Sixers that closed out the Nuggets.
It was a bitter return for former Sixer Andre Iguodala, who was booed pretty much throughout the game. The fans got no better gratification than at the end of the first half, when Denver ran an isolation play for Iguodala, he fell to the floor while trying to jump stop. The horn sounded as he lay on the floor with the ball, much to the delight of the 19,101 in attendance. Iguodala finished with 11 points on 5-for-13 shooting.
But this game wasn't about him. This was a chance for the fans to see the new-look Sixers, a team they have very high expectations for, even if the main acquisition, Bynum, is out for a bit with a bone bruise on a knee. It also is a team that is unmistakably led by Holiday, who totaled 14 points, 11 assists and six rebounds.
"It's that guy in the huddle that's making the calls and making the plays when you're driving to score a touchdown when guys are looking in his eyes and they believe in Jrue," Collins said of Holiday. "He expended a lot of energy, he played 41 minutes, and I had that ball in his hands a lot. He had rangy guys on him; he had quicker guys on him. That's why the ball is going to be in his hands."