Strength of schedule. It's the mantra detractors -- and I use that term lightly -- are focusing on, needing more evidence before vaulting this years 76ers team into the NBA's elite. If this is your belief, and there's some validity to that, last night probably didn't sway your opinion one way or the other. With that being said, it's becoming more and more difficult to deny the near-historic run the Sixers are on.
The Sixers have outscored their opponents by 144 points through 9 games of the season. That's the third best mark through 9 games by a team in 26 years, behind only the 1996-1997 Bulls (+170 points, finished 69-13) and the 1993-1994 Sonics (+154, finished 63-19).
The Sixers have held their opponents to 85.6 points per game over the first 9 games. Since the start of the 2000-2001 season, only 12 teams have bested that mark.
They've had 5 wins by 20 or more points this season. They had only 7 all of last year. The last team to win by 20 or more points 5 times in the first 9 games of the season was the 1969-1970 Knicks. They won the championship.
Having a 7-2 record is nice, but the truth that they have played a relatively easy schedule, one made even easier due to injuries, is unavoidable. But the near-historic destruction they've brought down on their opponent has to get you excited.
"If you're losing, you're losing. But if you're winning, it's like 'who are you beating'," Collins said after the game. "It's pretty interesting. Phoenix the other night beat Portland by 25 at their place. Utah is undefeated at home. New Orleans goes in and beats Denver last night. Golden State beat the Chicago Bulls. I don't get into all that nonsense. These are all professional teams."
"We got a break that Thornton wasn't playing. He's their leading scorer, and he's a guy that can throw up a huge night, and we took advantage of that," Collins went on to say. "It's the attrition that's going to go on with this [condensed] season."
The Sixers continued to get stellar play from the bench last night. Thaddeus Young once again gave the team a huge lift, particularly in the first half, where he scored 8 of his 10 points and helped pick up another sluggish start by the Sixers. Evan Turner had perhaps his best overall game of the season with 16 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists. Louis Williams 15 points on 11 shots and Nikola Vucevic's 4 point and 5 rebound effort capped off another tremendous effort by the bench brigade.
Today, however, it was a pair of slow starters that stole the show.
Elton Brand scored 9 points in the second quarter and 10 points in the third, matching up with troubled second year center DeMarcus Cousins for a good period of time. The battle between the two turned physical at times, with the highlight being a sequence where Brand blocked Cousins twice in a possession. This seemingly ignited Brand, who was as aggressive as he's been all year on the offensive end.
"A lot of the guys that have struggled early have been older big guys, who have a lot of wear and tear on their legs," Collins said about Brand. "The thing about [Elton] that you have to be concerned about is he's such a professional. He wants to work twice as hard, and sometimes at this age you have to do a little bit less and let your body recover."
"To me, it doesn't really matter if it's Andre [Iguodala], Thad [Young] stepping up, Spencer's been stepping up, Lou, Jrue, whoever," Elton Brand said. "We're a team. That's how we've been winning these games."
"I knew eventually I'd get the opportunity to get more than four or five shots," Brand said with a laugh.
"It was just opportunity tonight. Just taking those opportunities and playing out there, and being in the flow and in a nice rhythm," Brand explained.
"Elton is capable of that a lot of times," Evan Turner said of Brand after the game. "We're just a basketball team where anybody can get off in any given night. Elton hit a lot of big shots tonight, and he pretty much sparked our win."
Brand's previous high scoring mark was 12 points against Utah. This was only the second time he has taken double digit shots in a game this year.
Jodie Meeks, another struggling starter, also had a huge game, connecting on three third quarter three pointers during a 16-2 run by the Sixers to blow the game wide open. Meeks, who shot 39.7% from three point range last year, had been shooting only 9-30 from long range to start the season.
All of this overshadowed a "ho-hum" 17 points on 13 shots, 6 rebounds, 8 assists, 4 steals effort from Jrue Holiday, the kind of steady point guard play the Sixers became accustomed to last year.
Last night was the 76ers 76th win streak of 6 games or more in the history of the franchise.