We've all been fooled before. It's only three games. They haven't faced a well-rested, solid defense yet. There are countless reasons to resist the temptation to sell out, to buy in, to believe what we've seen since Evan Turner was unleashed. Keep them all in the back of your mind while you read on, because right now it's time to start asking ourselves what if this is truly legit.
Before we get to the team as a whole, let's talk about Turner himself. In the span of four games (and really it only took him two games to show this) he's gone from an insecure bench player with no role, to the big man on campus. It's like the past 1.5 years never happened. He's more than brimming with confidence, he's overflowing with it. It's really a shock, because he had opportunities like this last season. When Andre Iguodala was hurt, Turner got the nod several times and this player never really emerged. The only time we got a hint was in the playoffs against the Heat, but it was in limited doses.
It's really amazing how production can change perception (Trust me, I'm not pointing fingers here. I was the biggest offender.) What was petulance from a struggling bench player is suddenly and "eff you" attitude from a dominating starter. In fact, Turner seems constantly on the line between playing pissed off with an edge and being a complete dick who's going to punch someone on the other team in the face. I'm not ashamed to say I like that about him. From a points-per-possession perspective, when you hit a layup, get the foul called and then pick up a technical for telling the ref he should've fucking blown the whistle on his last shot is a negative, but on the other hand, that's kind of how superstars get the calls. When a struggling eighth man yells at the ref when he gets hit, he gets a tech and no one cares. When a budding star yells at the ref enough, well, he starts getting the benefit of the doubt if for no other reason than they don't want to hear it from you 10 times per game.
Aggression is probably the first word that comes to mind when I think about these past three games, and the best part of it is that it's not only about Turner. Turner has been the catalyst, but it's gone way beyond his play alone. Think about how Turner goes about rebounding. He's completely fearless, it doesn't matter if he's going up against a center or a point guard, he carves out his space around the hoop and skies for the boards. If his hands are anywhere near it, he doesn't just tip it, or get a hand on it, he snatches it out of the air and before he's even hit the ground, he's pushing it up the court. Every defensive board is a fast break opportunity. This is nothing new for Turner, what is new, however, is how it's changed the way the rest of the Sixers are going after boards. Turner hasn't only embarrassed opponent bigs, he's literally ripped boards out of the hands of Sixers bigs, regularly. We're starting to see guys like Brand and Thad get aggressive about the defensive glass. A couple of times Thad has skied for defensive boards and ripped them down with one hand over the past couple of games. Elton Brand had one rebound against the Knicks where he completely pinned Amare to the floor and collected the board with one hand over his shoulder. Turner's effort on the glass has been infectious and it's making the Sixers a tougher team.
We've talked enough about the ethereal impact Turner is having, let's touch on some of the more tangible advantages to having a 20/10 guy start between Jrue and Iguodala. First of all, putting a guy who scores an efficient 20 between Jrue and Iguodala takes so much pressure off of them. They can both concentrate on playing their roles, initiating, hitting open J's when the opportunity presents itself, and locking down on the defensive end. Turner also gives them something they don't have when Meeks is on the floor, and that's a guy who they don't need to set up for a look. Brand, Vucevic, Hawes, Meeks, none of those guys can really get a shot on their own. Their points are almost completely dependent on Jrue and Iguodala setting them up, or the offense creating a look for them. Turner can get his own shot. When the defense stiffens, that's an important ability, and shifting that responsibility off Iguodala's shoulders is huge for his efficiency (and the team's).
Having three playmakers on the floor also means the defense needs to make choices. Not many teams have the size on the perimeter to contend with the Sixers, there's going to be a mismatch somewhere. Part of taking advantage of mismatches is the ability (and willingness) to get the ball to the right player. This is where having those three guys playing off each other is a huge benefit. They all move well without the ball, they're all good, willing passers and if need be, they can all make a play to salvage a possession. That's quite a luxury.
The hidden bonus to Turner's ascension has been the further defining of roles for the second unit. Lou's job is no to score. Period. When he comes in the game, he's in there to put points on the board. He doesn't need to worry about getting Turner his touches. He can completely ignore Jodie Meeks (and he does). Lou plays offensive basketball like a downhill runner on a football field. Everything he does is moving toward the hoop, it's either a shot or a pass to a diving big (usually Thad). Having Meeks stand around on the perimeter has actually opened things up for him a little bit, even though Meeks is beyond an afterthought. Another thing Collins has done is stagger Lou and Turner's minutes. Meaning they haven't been playing together as much. This way, there's always one guy on the perimeter to run the offense through, if need be, and Turner's getting his touches with the starters, so when they're both on the floor together, it's not as big of a deal for him to play off the ball. When they're both clicking, you've got someone out there to carry the scoring load for 48 minutes. Jrue is also fitting into this role, though you probably couldn't tell against the Knicks with how poorly he shot the ball.
The Sixers have scored 100-plus in three straight games by essentially doing exactly what they need to do. Riding the hot hand. It's like a different guy plays the superstar role for five or six minutes at a time, all the while Iguodala is picking his spots on the periphery and setting up the bigs whenever he has the chance. This team's strength has always been depth. If a defense makes an adjustment to take away one option, there are two or three others on the floor, and a couple more on the bench. When Meeks stopped hitting threes, the starting lineup became predictable and defensible. With Turner in there, they've become dynamic again.
There are going to be some trade offs to giving Turner starter's minutes and the freedom to attack, namely, they're probably going to turn the ball over more frequently. I think Doug Collins is going to have to be OK with that. Turner, Jrue and Iguodala have a fluidity to their game when they're on the floor together, a collective creativity that I don't think you want to stifle. Control it, yes, but don't take the lobs, backdoor cuts and deep passes to spring the break away from them. They're going to do more good than harm.
Tomorrow night, we're going to get a chance to see how this whole thing works with Hawes back in the lineup. I have to say, Hawes' presence kind of worries me a little bit. Turner seems to be at his best in the half court when he has the ball in his hands at the top of the floor. That area of the floor is typically dominated by Hawes when he's in the game. Hopefully, playing off Hawes out above the foul line will just be an option, a play they call once in a while, and not the staple of the offense.
The best thing about this three-game stretch - and yes, it is still only three games - is that the thing that's powering their offense is sustainable. Early in the season when they were up near the top of the league in offensive efficiency, it was on the back of unbelievable shooting on long twos. Now, they're getting to the rim and getting to the line. They're sharing the load and playing to their strengths. With the best defense in the league, all they need is a small, sustained bump on the offensive end to power them to home court advantage in the first round and maybe something special once they get there. And who knows what happens in the future if they actually do have a star slotted in between Jrue and Iguodala.