THERE WAS the stutter-step dribble that led to a lefthanded floater. Another time it was the one-dribble power move to the left that led to a layup. There also was a quick power move to the right baseline over a smaller defender that went for a dunk and an ensuing free throw. He also ran down Chris Paul from behind and flicked the ball away from him during a dribble, leading to a basket at the other end.
Nerlens Noel's progression can't be talked or written about enough. Last night, he was matched up against Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, one of the premier rebounders and shot blockers in the NBA, though offensively challenged. He is the type of player many had hoped Noel to become. But now, with his play of late, the expectations for Noel have grown past that in some cases.
Noel scored a career-high 30 points to go with 14 rebounds, though his team was soundly beaten, 119-98. While only nine games remain in the season for the Sixers (18-55), and wins and losses only matter for how close they'll finish to the bottom of the league and what chance they'll have of getting a better pick in the draft lottery, Noel's progression has become bigger than any of it.
"It most definitely intrigues me, to see him play against some of the league's better, bigger, older players and see how he does against them," Sixers coach Brett Brown said of his emerging rookie. "I think the amazing thing about Nerlens is nobody, including myself, thought that he was going to be able to withstand the rigors of the NBA in a position where you have to run rim to rim for 82 games for 36 minutes at his pace. Could he withstand the duration? Is he going to miss 20 games because he's a 216-pound 'five' man and 20 years old? And he's only missed four games. And he's having the year that he's having; he's just getting better and better and better.
"The fact that he's on the court and the fact that he's continuing to improve and now he gets to do it against DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan, and the other night he had a pogo stick in Kenneth Faried, who he had to chase around for a while. Each night presents a challenge."
Noel met his, but there were other spots on the floor where the Sixers were simply overmatched. Chris Paul did his thing, which last night was 25 points and seven assists. His backcourt mate, J.J. Redick, did what he's supposed to do, with 19 points, and Jordan, despite hitting only five of 17 from the foul line, as the Sixers purposely put him there, collected 17 points and 20 rebounds.
It is the time of year when teams gearing up for the playoffs attempt to get themselves into postseason form. That is precisely how the Clippers looked, particularly in the third quarter, when they outscored the Sixers, 32-14, by making 13 of their 20 shots. Defensively, they held the Sixers to four of 19 from the floor and forced seven turnovers.
"There is no doubt about it," Brown said of playoff teams playing harder this time of year. "And having lived on that side for 12 years [in San Antonio], there's a feeling that it's just time to get more serious and to try to find a level of form. Coaching staffs are more conscientious of rotations and decisions, whether it's defense or offense. I just feel like, after the All-Star break and especially as you're heading into April, it starts getting into a whole different mindset. And I think it does with the players, as well."
More playoff teams are on the horizon as Brown and his team close out the season. There very well could be the type of losses that happened last night. But Brown will use it as a lesson for his young team.
"Just the reality that that is the landscape and they will feel it and see it for themselves," he said. "I'm thrilled to be able to come back home and play against a team like the Clippers in front of our home fans. I'm proud of our guys with how they've stayed together and continued to improve.
"You have arguably the best point guard in the game, and I've seen Chris in two Olympic Games and I've seen him with the Clippers and coached him in All-Star Games. You see an alpha dog there. You see just an incredible competitor. And so you get that coach [Doc Rivers] and you get that point guard and you get some of the talent around him and you get the presence of what DeAndre does at the rim and you sort of think that they can be what they want to be when they're that good on that side of the ball. The playoffs bring it all out. This time of year brings it all out."
It brought out an ugly loss for the Sixers, but caused even more optimism for the future of Noel.
All five Clippers starters hit double figures as Matt Barnes had 15 and Blake Griffin 10 . . . Ish Smith had 18 points and nine assists, Luc Mbah a Moute added 13 points and Hollis Thompson 10 for the Sixers.