Doug Collins stated last week that winning as many games as possible is the goal of this team. Playoff seeding and who the Sixers' first-round opponent may wind up being isn't really all that important beyond getting as many wins and the highest seed they can. It makes sense, especially with so much ambiguity among the top three seeds. What he hasn't mentioned, though, is how he's using these games to figure out his playoff rotation.
I've personally spent a ton of time thinking/writing/talking about Andres Nocioni's re-emergence in the rotation. The fears seemed unfounded when Nocioni was a DNPCD against the Bulls, but last night the coveted 8th spot in the rotation was Nocioni's alone. He played 14 minutes and Evan Turner was a DNPCD. No 9th man even got off the bench.
If you look back at the "important" games of the season, and really at the games where the Sixers played exceptionally well, Collins has already given us a glimpse at his shortened playoff rotations. The simple fact is that he's got his 7-man rotation set, and those guys are probably going to play somewhere near 95% of the total minutes in a close playoff game (230 of 240). Hawes, Brand, Iguodala, Meeks, Holiday, Williams and Young. Those are the guys who will wind up winning or losing when the games start to really count, and the protracted playoff schedule may even allow Collins to rely on them for a higher percentage of the team's minutes.
After thinking about the comfort level Collins has in his core seven, and failure of Turner, Nocioni and Speights to elevate their games to the level where Collins sees fit to give them regular minutes down the stretch, I started wondering how Collins used his rotations the playoffs at his previous coaching stops. This game jumped out at me immediately. Game 2 of the Pistons/Hawks series in 1997. The Pistons were down 1-0 and in desperate need of a win. Collins used only seven players in the game. In game three, he used eight, but Theo Ratliff saw only 1 minute of action. He used more players in the remaining two games of the series (both losses), but in neither game did the eighth man even play 10 minutes.
The previous season, the Pistons were swept out but Collins' pattern was pretty much the same. Seven guys got most of the minutes. I couldn't find box scores for the playoff games he coached with the Bulls earlier in his career, but my guess would be I'd find similar minute distribution.
This isn't something that's rare in the league, I don't think. Look at game seven of the finals from last season, for example. Boston really only used six players.
The point here is I think Collins is probably fine going to battle with his top seven when the playoffs start, in fact, I think he's comfortable with it. These final seven games aren't really about searching for that eighth guy, they're more about any of those guys on the bubble demanding minutes in the post season. If no one steps up, then Collins will probably lean heavily on his top seven and only reach deeper if a matchup or need calls for spot minutes for one guy or another, and I have a feeling that eighth guy would probably be Tony Battie, considering the makeup of the roster.
So what does this mean for Turner? Well, it means he better wake up and soon. Otherwise, he'll probably have a run or two early in the series to see if he can handle the pressure, if he falters, it's likely he won't even be a thought later. The same goes for Speights. Nocioni is the safe option, I guess, and by safe I mean you pretty much know exactly what you're going to get. Zero defense, sporadic offense and the occasional three. Or maybe Nocioni becomes a specialist if Collins absolutely needs a shooter on the floor, defense be damned, and Jodie needs a blow. Either way, when everything is on the line, it's going to be the top seven who get the minutes.
Here's the thing, though, when Spencer Hawes is playing like he has for most of the previous three games, that philosophy works out pretty well. Even going back further, Hawes has played 25+ minutes in 7 of the past 9 games. In the previous 65 games, he only topped 25 minutes 12 times. This isn't a sudden spate of charity on Collins' part, this is a case of Hawes playing better basketball. If he's a passable center, he can stay on the floor for 25 minutes. If he's playing actual decent basketball, he can stay out there longer, but when he's a defensive sieve and his jumpers/sissy hooks aren't falling, Collins can't simply trot him out there. He's a destructive force on both ends. He kills the team.
If Hawes can keep up this level of production into the playoffs, the Sixers might just have a chance with their seven-man rotation in the first round. They just might be able to shock the world. But if the hot streak ends, if he goes back to being the center he's been for roughly 75% of the season, well, then I don't see how Collins is going to be able to cobble together 225 minutes from the other six guys. Trimming the rotation to seven hinges on Hawes' play, mainly because they're just too thin up front (even with him), and as good as they are at playing small, do you really think they can do it for 35 minutes/game?
It's funny how things work out like this. In past years, it seemed like the team's fortunes were directly tied to how Willie Green's streaky jumper was falling on a particular night. This year, whether Collins is going to be able to trim the fat from his rotation will probably hinge on the production of the worst member of his core seven. If Hawes isn't up to the challenge, well, then it's going to fall on someone who has failed in the regular season to somehow come through under the bright lights.
Ultimately, it obviously doesn't just come down to Hawes plays. Each of the top seven guys have had stretches where they carried the team, and stretches where they killed the team. They rely on each of them, from some, they need more, from others they need less, but more specific production and in the grand scheme of things, the lack of scoring from Lou, or energy from Thad can be just as damning as a lack of rebounding from Brand, or ball security from Jrue. Spreading the responsibilities out among the seven players is a blessing and curse, it must be difficult to game plan against the Sixers because you never know where the offense is going to come from, or to be more accurate you know it's always going to come from everyone, but at the same time, if a couple of guys have tough matchups, they aren't particularly equipped to shift a large portion of the burden onto one guy.