Forget quarters one, two and four of last night's game against the Jazz for the time being. We're going to focus on the third quarter, because something brilliant happened when the Sixers outscored the Jazz 30-14 in that stanza.
For all but two games this season, the Sixers have been a team caught between their running roots (the team that surprised everyone with a playoff berth last season) and a newfound half-court offensive scheme. Truth be told, they've been horribly inefficient at both. Their defense hasn't been forcing errors, their guards haven't been pushing the ball, their bigs haven't been running the floor. In the half-court, their perimeter players don't seem to know what to do with their new low-post pressence. They've played like a team without an identity.
In the third quarter last night, they had an identity. They were the same running team from last season. They were fueled by defense. They pushed the ball at every opportunity. They even pushed the ball off makes, something we haven't seen once this season before that quarter. The difference, though, was what they did when the running game wasn't there.
We'll dive into it after the jump.
Instead of muddling through the first seven or eight seconds of the shot clock trying to figure out where they were supposed to be on the floor, the guards got the ball up the court and into the post quickly. They were decisive, if not properly spaced. Brand fought through doubles and got shots up, the rest of the team crashed the boards. A couple of times, they actually worked as a team when the ball was in the post. The give-and-go between Miller and Brand was a thing of beauty.
The offense obviously looked night and day better during the third, but it all got started on the other end of the floor. In the quarter, the Sixers blocked 5 shots (Brand blocked four of them), they also forced 5 turnovers. Most impressively, this wasn't against Utah's b-team, this was against their starters, led by the steady hand of Deron Williams. The Sixers starters made a veteran team shrivel under their pressure, and they turned that pressure into easy shots and conversions with their athleticism.
Brand looked rejuvenated, like he'd finally figured out what he can do to get this team going. The other four guys on the floor looked like they finally remembered what playing basketball, just playing not overthinking every move on the floor, feels like. The entire team loosened up and we finally saw what they're capable of. This is what the team was built for. They're still at their best when they're using their defense to spark the offense. They still have better athletes on the floor than any team they face. They're still quicker, they're still better finishers, they still have guys who know how to make the right decisions in the open court. Night in and night out, that's still going to be their biggest advantage. Elton Brand shouldn't change that part of their game, he should help it with his defense and his ability to run the floor. If anything, they should run more with him on the floor. They should have more opportunities to run.
As good as Brand is in the post, and I think he's much better than anyone is giving him credit for right now, the highest percentage shot you're going to get is still on the break, with numbers. That's still got to be the focus. The fact that Brand gives you a weapon in the half-court doesn't change the strengths of the rest of the roster. Think of Brand as an excellent safety valve should the running game fail. Or if the other team gets back on defense.
It's obviously a priority for this team to learn how to play in the half court. They need to get their spacing down. They need to figure out how to punish teams for doubling Brand. This will be critical to beating the best teams in the league, and an absolute necessity to winning come playoff time, but right now it isn't the most important thing. The most important thing is to refocus this team on playing aggressive, sound defense, and using the stops, blocks and turnovers to spark their running game.
There's one thing I'd like to see this week. The Sixers have 4 games in 5 nights, and I want to see the starters playing heavy, heavy minutes. Every time Lou and Willie have come in they've been a trainwreck. I don't really care about them at this point. I want the starting five on the floor for long stretches until they figure this out. In the third last night the starters were on the floor together for 11 minutes. I'm no fan of Doc Rivers, but he did one thing really well last year. In the beginning of the season, he gave Pierce, Garnett and Allen huge minutes together. Probably too many. He left them out there so they could gel as a team. As the season wore on he started lengthing his rotation and reeling back their minutes. That's what Mo needs to do now with the starting five.