FOR THE umpteenth time since Brett Brown has been the head coach of the 76ers, an opposing team sat some of its regular contributors. This time it was Saturday night.
A day after playing a big home game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer rested regulars Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll. Those three combine for more than 41 points a game, so it might have been a little anticlimactic to fans when the Sixers posted a 92-84 win to get their 14th win of the season in 63 games.
While we all know it's not about wins for the Sixers this season - and many would say it's more about the losses in order to grab another high draft pick - it is amazing how hard this team continues to play, night in and night out.
Not long after having his roster scaled down yet again, with no lead guard who knew anything about his system, Brown faced one of the toughest three-game stretches of the season last week, as his club played at Oklahoma City, hosted the rising Utah Jazz on Friday, then played the league-leading Hawks at home on Saturday.
The first game following the All-Star break and after Michael Carter-Williams and K.J. McDaniels had been traded, Brown looked like a fighter who had just gone through a 12-round pummeling at the hands of Mike Tyson. The team had been making strides, especially at the defensive end, when his core was stripped. He expectedly absorbed some punishing losses while throwing newcomers Ish Smith and Isaiah Canaan into the lead-guard spot. Then came the recent three-game stretch.
"This could be really tough," Brown said before the trio of games. But the result was really the same as it had been all season. The team played hard. The players overcame their shortcomings by running through walls for the coach, first extending the Thunder to overtime before losing, then taking a tough Utah team down to the wire before falling by six. On Saturday, they again put forth an unbelievably energetic effort in pulling out the win.
Nerlens Noel continued his impressive improvement with 17 rebounds, 11 points and five steals against Atlanta. Since the All-Star break, the 6-11 string bean has averaged 11.8 points, 10 rebounds, 2.9 blocks and 2.7 steals. He is the epitome of what this season is about - steady improvement that will parlay into a lengthy career in this league. He has become a dominant force at the defensive end, become more comfortable at the offensive end and shown a physicality that was not evident early in the season.
Offensively, Noel has felt better going strong to the rim, relying less on double and triple pumps with the ball as he heads to the basket. That usually means trips to the foul line, where he has improved tremendously. He is making putback dunks part of his routine and is rebounding better in traffic than he has at any point this season.
Defensively, he is still best suited coming off the ball and using his crazy athleticism to block shots, but now has commanded the ability to block shots while the ball is still in players' hands. He is meeting players at the rim on dunk attempts and no longer being thrown all over the court by bigger offensive players. It isn't so much that he has gotten stronger; rather, he has learned positioning better. He is not putting himself in the position to be pushed. He fronts when he has to. He slides away from the contact and uses his quick hands to keep balls away from the post. He has gotten much better at helping in the lane and recovering to his man.
The opponent - or lack thereof at times - doesn't matter to Brown or Noel or any of the players. What matters is the improvement of the team, of the individuals. Effort, the coach preaches, needs to be at a maximum level at all times - no matter who he has to throw out onto the court, and no matter what players the opposing team throws out there.