By now, it's no secret that the Sixers struggle offensively, to put it mildly.
The Sixers 93.4 offensive rating is, by far, last in the league, and the 2nd worst team (Orlando Magic, 101.2) is closer to the 8th best offense in the league (Chicago Bulls, 108.5) than they are to the Sixers (93.4).
So when the Sixers have that rare moment of offensive execution, boy is it fun to watch.
The Sixers were led by Michael Carter-Williams, who scored 22 points on 9-19 shooting from the field, while dishing out 7 assists to only 3 turnovers. He had help, though: Robert Covington (18 points on 5-14 shooting), Nerlens Noel (17 points, 7-10 shooting), and Luc Mbah a Moute (13 points, 6-10 shooting) all scored in double figures for the Sixers.
Yeah, it was against the New Orleans Pelicans, who are already a well below-average defensive team, ranking 24th in the league in defensive rating on the season. With Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday sitting, the opportunity was there for the Sixers to take advantage: heading into the game the Pelicans had a 112.1 defensive rating in the 506 minutes they played without Anthony Davis on the floor, which would rank just above the Timberwolves 112.2 rating as the 2nd worst in the league.
Still, it's one thing to talk about having the opportunity to execute, and it's another thing for this young and inexperienced team to actually do so at a high level.
Last night, they did just that.
"I think it is," Brett Brown said after the game, saying it was as good as his team has moved the ball all year. "You've heard me talk about it, and tonight it caught on.
"it's just so empowering when the ball moves," Brown said.
One of the main beneficiaries of that ball movement was Nerlens Noel, who scored 17 points on 7-10 shooting from the field, including a running-hook and two jump shots.
Noel struggled mightily on the offensive end during the month of December, shooting just 38.3% from the field with a 41.6% true shooting percentage. To put that in perspective, nobody who is 6'10" or bigger and has played at least 500 minutes has a true shooting percentage of less than 45% for the season. In fact, Noel's 45.1% true shooting percentage is the lowest in the league among players who fit that criteria.
But Noel has bounced back offensively during the month of January, scoring 8.8 points in just over 30 minutes per night, while shooting 45.3% from the floor, good for a 52.4% true shooting percentage. The offense still comes and goes, with the rookie big man struggling with consistency, but progress is being made.
Before the game, Sixers head coach Brett Brown talked about Noel needing to demand the ball more.
"I think Nerlens has to create his own touches," Brown said. "Run the floor, stamp your foot, post up, and then go. And we'll play off of you.
"You've got to command the ball and you've got to want the ball, and at times he does and at times he's just trying to be a good teammate and not appear to be selfish," Brown said.
"I'm more of 'If I'm open, I expect the ball' [guy], but I'm going to have to really start demanding it," Noel said. "If guys don't see me or things aren't just the way it's supposed to be, it's on me to really step it up vocally and call for the ball.
"I always want to play through the flow of the offense. When I'm open, I should demand the ball, and I definitely will start to do that," Noel continued.
After the game, Brett Brown said this was Noel's best game as a professional.
"I think his stat line doesn't reflect the impact that he had on the game," Brown said. "What the stats don't show is people not going to the rim to mean it, having to alter their shots [because of Noel]. He was really very, very good tonight."
What was the difference in Noel's play? According to the coach, it can be explained in very simple terms.
"It's energy. It really is, I'd like to be smarter and tell you something more clever, but I can't. It's energy," Brown said. "He's just engaged. He's a play ahead. He rotates and goes after things like we hoped he would, and tonight he did that more constantly than he has in the past."
Noel's energy helped the Sixers shut down a depleted Pelicans team, giving up only 81 points on 38.7% shooting from the field, yielding a 90.8 defensive rating that was their third best performance of the season. Eric Gordon (5-16 from the field for 16 points) was the only Pelicans starter in double figures, with Ryan Anderson (2-11, 8 points) and Tyreke Evans (3-7, 8 points, 7 turnovers) struggling mightily.
Noel's incredible stat line led the way, as he added 11 rebounds, 5 blocks, and 2 steals to go along with his 17 points. The Pelicans challenged him at the rim 9 times, shooting just 22.2% when doing so.
The Sixers also got blocks from Robert Covington (2), K.J. McDaniels, Jerami Grant, and Hollis Thompson. In all, it was the 7th time this season the Sixers had 10 or more blocked shots in a game. No team in the NBA has more games with 10+ blocks this season.
Besides the interior defenders, the Sixers got really good defensive play from Michael Carter-Williams on the perimeter.
Carter-Williams also played well offensively, with a game high 22 points. 22 points on 19 field goal attempts was relatively good efficiency for a guy who has struggled this season, and it would have been better had he made more than 3 of his 7 free throw attempts. But it was his ball movement and ability to facilitate the offense that really stood out.
The Sixers had only 2 turnovers during the first half, their lowest total in a half this season. Their 8 turnovers for the game were the lowest total of the season, and there was a 21 minute period between the end of the first and the end of the third quarter where they didn't commit a turnover.
For a team who leads the league in both turnovers per game and turnovers percentage, this allowed not only for the 76ers to get more looks at the basket, but also allowed their defense to get set more frequently. On the season, the Sixers give up the 2nd most transition opportunities, in terms of a percentage of their opponents possessions.
This all led to what was perhaps their best game of the season. The Sixers never trailed in the game, the first time that's happened all season. They also built a 19 point lead at one point, which is the biggest lead they've had all year.
Yeah, it was a very depleted Pelicans team. But it was also their 6th win in their last 14 games. The team is undeniably starting to put things together on a more consistent basis.
Tony Wroten update
Before the game, head coach Brett Brown gave a rather ominous update on Tony Wroten's status.
"We're going to give him more testing," Brown said about Tony Wroten's injury. "There's a chance we may bring him to California and really assess what is going on with his sprained knee.
"I'm not in a position to talk any more than that because we just don't know," Brown continued. "We want to deliver something that’s 100% a decision, and at this stage we’re just not there yet."
Tony Wroten will not make the trip to Detroit for tonight's game against the Pistons.