Whether or not anyone is ready to believe it, the 2011-12 Philadelphia 76ers are for real. They proved so tonight, against the reigning NBA MVP and the best team in the Eastern Conference. Not only were they able to hang with the mighty Chicago Bulls, they flat out annihilated them.
The first quarter began with the two teams feeling each other out and you got the impression the Sixers would be lucky to keep the game close. Trailing 17-11 midway through the first the Night Shift clocked in and sparked a 16-4 run to end the quarter. From then on the Sixers led by six and never looked back, keeping the Bulls at arm's length (zumoff'd) for the remainder of the game.
Despite playing the frontrunners throughout, it wasn't until early in the third quarter when the Sixers separated themselves from the Bulls, dismantling them on both ends of the floor. It wasn't until that moment that I truly believed this team could be for real. I've seen many a great stretches from these Philadelphia 76ers since Iverson's departure, but this felt different. Normally the Sixers are the little brother in these situations, catching big brother napping. Tonight, the Sixers played like they belonged in the same class as the Bulls, and expected to win.
Was the incredible, goosebump-provoking stretch of basketball played by these Sixers in the third quarter a representation of a turning point in an era – a post-Iverson era that's been lost in the shuffle amongst the fans and media – or was it just another quarter, another game? It remains to be seen and will largely depend what happens from here on out. I realize the Bulls were without Deng (no excuses) and the Sixers had their way with Chicago twice last season, but tonight was different because the pressure was on. All eyes were on this game. The Sixers heard the whispers. "Yeah, but you haven't beaten anybody," and the Bulls certainly weren't going to take any team with a 15-6 record lightly.
If this game ends up representing a turning point of sorts for the post-Iverson era Sixers, it's fitting that it was "the other" A.I. – the face of the franchise during this in-between era – who took over the game and sent the crowd, along with the broadcast booth and fans across the interwebs, into a frenzy. Let's recap:
3rd quarter, 10:46 remaining, Sixers lead 49-44
Andre Iguodala corrals a Carlos Boozer miss largely in thanks to a great box out by Tony Battie on Joakim Noah. Iguodala races up court with the rebound, blows by Kyle Korver with a nice crossover/hesitation move, gets grabbed by C.J. Watson – no foul call – and dunks the basketball as Carlos Boozer watches from below. Sixers lead 51-44.
3rd quarter, 9:44 remaining, Sixers lead 51-46
Derrick Rose blows by Jrue Holiday in an isolation play only to be met by Elton Brand and Tony Battie at the rim, who simultaneously block the shot. Elton secures the miss, outlet to Jrue Holiday, who found a streaking Iguodala in the open court, who then side-stepped Kyle Korver and unleashed something nasty on the rim. Sixers lead 53-46.
A few seconds later, following a Joakim Noah miss, Andre Iguodala grabs another rebound, slowly dribbles up court and pulls up for a heat-check three over Ronnie Brewer. Splash. Malik Rose goes nuts. Crowd goes nuts. Bench goes nuts. Sixers lead 56-46, Bulls call a time out.
3rd quarter, 8:41 remaining, Sixers lead 56-46
Iguodala gets another rebound, dribbles up court and finds Tony Battie for a wide open 15 footer on a pick and pop. Battie pump faked, took a step forward and missed. Elton Brand then tapped the offensive rebound back for Jodie Meeks, who missed a three. Then, Tony Battie got the offensive rebound and Iguodala once again found an open teammate, Elton Brand for a 16 footer, but EB came up short.
On the other end of the floor, Iguodala hounded Ronnie Brewer before eventually stripping the ball, tip-toeing the sideline, busting out a completely unnecessary but awesome fake-pass-behind-the-back dribble before dishing the ball to an open Jrue Holiday for an easy 15 footer. Splash. Sixers lead 58-46. The game was pretty much over following that move, which brought the house down, and prompted Malik Rose to use the one-liner, "Got to go to Facebook AND LIKE HIS STATUS RIGHT NOW!"
From that point on the Sixers outscored the Bulls 17-9, extending their lead to 20 heading into the fourth. Derrick Rose was never seen again as the Bulls waved the proverbial white flag. The third quarter, specifically Iguodala's stretch of LeBronesque basketball, was amazing to watch and without trying to become a prisoner of the moment, was probably the most enjoyable quarter I've seen the Sixers play since Iverson left.
Bullet points the rest of the way.
- Derrick Rose finished with 18 points (on 17 shots), 6 assists to 4 turnovers and a game-low -17 +/-. He had some breathtaking plays at the end of the second quarter but was ultimately stifled by the number one defense in the NBA.
- Lou Williams did his thing, scoring 14 off the bench, but took some bad shots and uncharacteristically committed four turnovers. All in all, a very basic Boss game.
- Jrue Holiday finished with 17 points (on 15 shots), 5 assists, 4 rebounds and only one turnover. He also played more-than-admirable defense on Rose. Still need for free throws and less long twos, but I'll save that complaint for another night.
- Thaddeus Young also played a typical game, hustling his brains out, running the floor in transition, crashing the offensive glass, "picking up loose change" and "turning garbage into gold". There was one play where he hit a crazy fadeaway jumper, spinning to the right (he's a lefty). It was his second such make in his many games.
- Andre Iguodala finished with 19 points, which is perfect. The running inside joke around here is that he's not a true superstar because he doesn't score 20 points per game. He had a shot at 20 when he stood at the free throw line with a total of 18. He made the first and missed the second, naturally, leaving him one point short of the magical number of 20.
- Last but not least, Lavoy Allen. Holy Temple Owl. The NBA's worst player, according to ESPN, finished with a game-high +16 off the bench, along with 15 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals. Lavoy's filled in beautifully for the injured combo of Hawes and Vucevic and the old combo Battie and Elson. For the 50th pick and supposedly the worst player in the NBA, the Temple product plays like a grizzled veteran and knows his role. He has a great stroke on his jump shot, nice touch around the rim and crashes the glass with energy. I don't think anyone expected this from Lavoy, but it's a pleasant surprise. He's definitely earned a permanent spot on the Night Shift.