No one can fault the 76ers effort on Friday night.
One night after a 53-point blowout loss that revived strong opinions from just about everyone about the team's front office strategy, the Sixers fought hard and took the Houston Rockets to task. Unfortunately, late mistakes cost the Sixers a chance to take the victory, as an easy basket from James Harden with nine seconds left in the game ultimately resulted in an 88-87 Houston victory.
The late-game gaffes, including a technical foul on Sixers coach Brett Brown in the final minute of the game for kicking a basketball in frustration, might be the story of the game, but the larger picture is more important. Despite being run out of Dallas, embarrassed, a night prior, called out by both local and national media, the young Sixers came back and fought valiantly against a superior opponent.
The Rockets, for the most part, weren't an inspired bunch. Most of the team's role players seemingly took the night off, and the Sixers length clearly bothered the Rockets when closing out on jumpers. Houston shot just 7-34 from three point range, a far cry from the 16-34 showing Houston had in the teams' first meeting last week. It took a
Herculean Superman-ian effort from Dwight Howard in protecting the paint for the Rockets to even stay in the game.
Howard finished with 21 points, 16 rebounds, and seven blocks. The block number sells his otherworldly defense short - the Sixers repeatedly beat their defenders into the paint, but the rim area became a no-fly zone whenever Howard was in the game. The Sixers shot 50% at the rim and only got to that percentage because Tarik Black couldn't stop the Sixers at all.
On the other end of the court, Howard's physicality overwhelmed a thinner Sixers front line. Unlike the previous meeting, Howard avoided too much post play. He just attacked the rim as the screener on pick-and-rolls and rebounded misses. I'm not sure I've seen him play better.
That rim defense, combined with several crippling late turnovers, contributed to the fateful decisions that ultimately resulted in a Sixers loss. Despite its relative lack of importance, I need to talk about the end of the game. After the aforementioned James Harden layup with nine seconds remaining, the Sixers called timeout. After the advance, Michael Carter-Williams received the ball near halfcourt. Under coach Brown, the Sixers have typically run quick plays in tight, late-game situations. However, conventional NBA wisdom is still to run isolation plays, as they almost always result in a shot attempt.
Statistically, teams that run plays have a more favorable outcome. Isolations typically result in low-percentage, contested shots. Only teams with superstars that have otherworldly shot-making abilities should consider isolations when there is enough time to make a play, in my opinion. The Sixers aren't that kind of team.
Last night, the Sixers ran an isolation play for Carter-Williams in the final possession. MCW had a favorable matchup against Isaiah Canaan, the Rockets fill-in point guard (for the injured Patrick Beverley) who stands generously at 6'0". MCW is at least six inches taller, probably more, and could launch a relatively uncontested shot even with man defense. The Sixers had no shooting around him for who knows what reason - either Tony Wroten or Brandon Davies was the best shooter on the floor.
Additionally, MCW turned the ball over in a pick and roll the possession before the Harden layup, as the lack of spacing and a poor Davies screen put MCW in a trap. Given the circumstances that MCW had to work with, he made the right decision, even though MCW is relatively dreadful at shooting pull-up jumpers. Additionally, I understand Brett Brown's decision to isolate (though I don't agree with it), as the Sixers committed several turnovers in the fourth quarter when pressured in traffic.
The personnel on the final possession left me scratching my head. I can understand opting for a low-risk, definite shot attempt. I don't understand how the team's best shooter (Hollis Thompson) was subbed out for Luc Mbah a Moute, or how Tony Wroten was supposed to stand there like a threatening shooter. Why not go small and space around MCW if you're going to iso? Why use one of the worst spacing combinations that your team has?
Considering the personnel gaffe and the technical (the free throw was missed, but Harden made the two shots which immediately followed) Brett Brown had a very poor final minute, but he deserves credit for turning the ship around from the night prior. The loss stings, because it easily could have been a win. If the team keeps playing hard like it did last night, the wins will come.