Looking ahead at the Western Conference-heavy gauntlet which is also known as the Philadelphia 76ers' annual Ice Capades Trip (credit to Brian for that one), the Sixers were going to be underdogs in at least seven of the eight games, maybe all of them depending on what you think about Phoenix. That's why when they dropped a tight Festivus matchup at struggling Brooklyn, it felt like a major missed opportunity, a close game dropped at a point in the season when wins are most likely going to be hard to come by. To keep their heads around sea level, the Sixers need to at least take a couple of games against superior Western Conference opponents. They need to surprise right before and after the New Year.
And the Sixers did just that in Memphis, winning 99-89 and upping their record on the road trip to 1-1.
In my opinion, the key to the game was the Sixers' ability to limit damage in what appeared to be problem areas heading into the contest. Their biggest fear had to be that the Grizzlies, the best offensive rebounding team in the league, would pound the Sixers' frontcourt on the glass with the imposing combination of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Memphis did a decent job in corralling 27 percent of their own misses, but they ended the game below their sterling average of 32 percent. That is a victory in itself.
But even more important, the Sixers did a decent job in limiting how effective Memphis was off of their offensive rebounds. I have the Grizzlies at an unofficial total of 15 second chance points off of their 15 offensive rebounds. With the Sixers' front line struggles and the unit's lack of depth, the number proved manageable. The damage felt like it could have been a whole lot more, but it wasn't because Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes (9 combined blocks) and Lavoy Allen competed against Gasol and Z-Bo all night. Just because the Sixers gave up a rebound didn't mean the Grizzlies weren't going to meet resistance at the rim if they went back up with the ball, and that proved large. This type of effort is something that is basically expected from Young every night, but Hawes was a huge surprise, playing his clearly most active game since the opening night masterpiece against Denver.
Also with regards to limiting damage, I said in the preview that the Sixers would probably have to dominate in their area of strength, taking care of the ball (11.8 TOV%), and at the same time take away a Grizzlies' strength, their ability to create turnovers (16.1 OPP TOV%). This was basically a stalemate, with the number falling almost exactly in between. But Memphis only scored 18 points off those 16 turnovers, a number that didn't kill the Sixers, who scored 22 points off Memphis' 13 turnovers. That's also something.
Managing the turnover and offensive rebounding damage helped the Sixers win a game where they shot much better because they by and large created better shots, a welcome change from the depressing norm where it's usually the other way around. In particular, the Sixers' team defense in the halfcourt looked confident, rotating well and switching when appropriate, communicating at a high level. After securing rebounds, the Sixers then did a nice job creating easy offense in transition.
Memphis started out hot from the field, shooting 12-19 in the first quarter. It was The Marc Gasol Show to begin the game as the Spanish center scored or assisted on 22 of Memphis' first 23 offensive points. While the big man made everything look easy, I thought Lavoy Allen played decent defense. He was just rendered helpless with the personification of the "Good offense beats good defense" cliche. Besides two Quincy Pondexter corner threes (on back-to-back possessions where Collins played zone, which we might not see again this season because of this), pretty much everything the Grizzlies got in the first 12 minutes was a jumpshot, contested, or both. The Grizzlies' hot shooting didn't hold as they finished the game at 38 percent from the field.
Dorell Wright was definitely feeling it, going all uber-efficient in scoring 28 points on only 11 shots. Here's a stat that I found telling: Of his eight made field goals, the backcourt combination of Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner assisted on six of them. Those two did a nice job in the drive and kick game, especially Jrue in the third quarter after getting into the lane seemingly at will.
Both Turner and Holiday had forgettable shooting nights and poor overall games, but they found other ways to contribute. Turner couldn't score or really even muster a shot against Tony Allen and Quincy Pondexter (1 point, 0-4 shooting) but he cleaned the glass with six boards and handed out nine assists. His most critical stretch came early in the fourth quarter when he ran a bench-heavy unit that was able extend the lead from 6 to 11 points. Holiday's shooting was way off (13 points on 16 shots), but until a bunch of late turnovers, he ran the team very well (9 dimes) and helped limit Mike Conley into a nightmare 3-17 shooting night. Getting a win where both of the starting guards submitted sub-par efforts is absolutely huge.
And that's because, unlike most of the year, everyone else stepped up. Nick Young continued to torture the FedEx Forum faithful in a fashion reminiscent of the way Andrew Toney treated Boston fans everytime he stepped into the Garden (OK, not really). Royal Ivey made two gigantic threes in that critical stretch early in the fourth quarter, giving the Sixers a legitimate lift from the backup point guard position for maybe the first time all season. As mentioned, Hawes and Wright were great. And even Lavoy followed his great effort in Brooklyn and battled Gasol all night, doing a very nice job after the first quarter surge.
Memphis didn't have the services of Rudy Gay for personal reasons (Hope everything's alright there), but I don't think the Sixers are sympathetic to a team missing one of its better players for only one game.They've been playing shorthanded all year.
The Sixers' win was a surprise no matter how you look at it, but the best part is that for one night, beating a title contender on the road didn't feel like an accident.
For the Memphis perspective, check out Straight Outta Vancouver.