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Rockets 104, Sixers 93: A Positive Step

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The Sixers lost on Monday night, but there were many good things to take from the game.

Safe to say, Nerlens passed the test.
Safe to say, Nerlens passed the test.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

As a fan of a rebuilding franchise, all you can really hope for is an entertaining product. Anything more is gravy. After all, it's hard freaking hard watching your favorite team frequently get their doors blown off en route to 50-60+ losses. While typing this, I can hear Chris Martin screaming: Nobody said it was easy...

Through four games, the Philadelphia 76ers have succeeded in keeping us interested. The normal caveats apply (especially considering they were the talk of the league at this point a year ago), but they have found a way to consistently give their fans something to cheer about. That's something.

In a 104-93 home loss to the surging Houston Rockets, the Sixers mostly fell victim to James Harden's ruthlessly efficient march to the free-throw line and a smart drive-and-kick offense that engineered a 16-34 night from behind the arc (Trevor Ariza has made approximately $20 million alone just in the corners at Wells Fargo Center). But despite the loss, they made a very good team work extremely hard to defeat them. That's not nothing.

If the Sixers continue to play like this, they'll be in pretty good shape when Michael Carter-Williams returns to the lineup. The wins will come, albeit not that many of them. Let's tackle the individual stuff in bullet points:

  • Most of my preview centered on Nerlens Noel getting thrown into the fire and having the unenviable task of dealing with Dwight Howard one-on-one. How did the rook hold up? Much better than expected. First, let's touch on the one glaring negative: Noel didn't grab a board until late in the game and was as responsible as anyone for allowing Howard to finish with seven offensive rebounds. In general, rebounding (and more specifically, dealing with strength) is one of Nerlens' weaknesses as he enters the NBA. He can utilize his athleticism against a team like Milwaukee to notch a double-double, but against a bull like Howard he is going to struggle on the glass. Noel will get stronger as his career progresses, but I don't think he'll ever be an elite rebounder. The hope is for Joel Embiid to be that guy once he's healthy.
  • In every other regard, Noel was excellent. Perhaps most impressively, he frustrated the hell out of Howard defensively on the low block. Heading into the game, I couldn't help but find a lot of parallels between Nerlens' task and Ron Burgundy trying to escape the bear pit at the end of Anchorman. Like San Diego's greatest news anchor, Noel was at a huge strength disadvantage. Like Ron (whose dog, Baxter, saved his bacon), he had to get creative to survive, and that's just what he did. Noel consistently utilized his quickness ("pulling the chair out," reaching around for steals, generally outworking Howard, fronting, etc.) as a counter to Superman's strength. Howard finished with 11 points in 36 minutes, a number Robin Lopez wouldn't even dream of.
  • Offensively, Noel shot 5-8 for 10 points, and even got a nice mid-range jumper to drop. He also led the team with five assists (to three turnovers). Playing in front of his college coach, Noel recorded six steals, which was a product of the great activity mentioned above. His hand quickness is truly something special. And to top it off, Nerlens did this:
  • Noel wasn't the only Sixers rookie that impressed. K.J. McDaniels continued his torrid (and as far as this year goes, unsustainable) three-point shooting, sniping 3-4 from deep on the way to 14 points. Judging by the talent he's shown already, the Clemson product probably made the right decision by signing the nonguaranteed contract this offseason. With the way he forced Harden into difficult shots, almost ended Donatas Motiejunas' life on a dunk attempt, and challenged every shot at the rim, McDaniels is going to draw interest in restricted free agency. That interest will likely be thwarted when the Sixers match any reasonable offer, however.
  • I wasn't the biggest Tony Wroten fan last season, but he's starting to win me over. There are still some holes in the third-year guard's game, holes so big that it's still fair to wonder if he can be a rotation player on a good team. But man, it's difficult not to appreciate how hard Wroten competes on a nightly basis while faced with a borderline impossible task. Sure, his assist-to-turnover numbers are bad, but how could they not be? He's the only shot-creator in the starting lineup! Kudos to him for keeping the offense afloat. Wroten's Q Score is also helped by the fact that he makes three highlight reel plays per game.
  • Much of what was written about Wroten also applies to Alexey Shved. Hopefully, they both can keep it up at least until Carter-Williams returns to the lineup. They're doing yeoman's work.
  • Alright, what the eff is going on with Brandon Davies? As I mentioned earlier to Michael Levin, the president (and quite possibly, the only member) of Davies' fan club, even his missed jumpers are all in-and-out now. X-Files episodes have been based on less than Howard biting on a Davies three-point shot fake.
  • One small qualm with Brett Brown: I wish he would've stuck with more of the aggressive switching defense we saw against Milwaukee the other night. The Sixers were a disaster defending pick-and-rolls tonight, and Houston made them pay for it with three after three. If they switched the PNRs, I think their athleticism would have dealt with the mismatches better than their rotations handled dribble penetration.
  • I don't really understand some of the Luc Richard Mbah a Moute complaints. He hit a couple of threes, helped out on the boards, and made a sweet pass to Nerlens for a dunk. LRMAM has shown the ability to post-up smaller defenders as well, which could help the team manufacture some easy looks. I've been fairly impressed with the player that was brought in mostly as a mentor to Joel Embiid.