Saturday night, the Sixers finished their road trip with a loss to Portland, 110-101. The 76ers dropped to 36-34 with the loss, and come back home for some rest before a game against Atlanta on Wednesday.
On the second night of a back-to-back, the Sixers admirably battled with Portland the whole way. Trailing from the first bucket on, Philly was simply unable to close the gap on the occasions when they managed to put themselves within striking distance. As always, the bench came to play, combining for 59 points. Despite the team shooting relatively well from the field (50%), winning both the battle on the boards (37-36) and the turnover battle (11-10), the Sixers stumbled in key moments that slammed the door closed on their chance at a win. A turnover here, an ill-timed foul there, and they never pushed themselves over the hump; getting as close as 92-89 in the 4th, only to see Portland promptly balloon their lead with a 9-0 run.
Missing Iguodala, whose tendinitis of the knee has been bothering him throughout the year, the Sixer arsenal may have been depleted just enough to leave them outgunned in Portland. Wes Matthews scorched Philly for 20 first half points, and Gerald Wallace put together perhaps his best game in a Portland uniform, dropping 25 points and 8 dimes on the Sixer defense.
While Andre watched in street clothes, there was a non-injury related change in the rotation that also tweaked the Sixers’ look. Marreese Speights, whose minutes have yo-yoed up and down this season, watched the full 48 from the pine.
Going down in the scorebook as the dreaded DNP-CD is never great for a player’s confidence. All year, though, Speights has handled the uncertainty of his place in the rotation in stride, sporadically showing off his enticing midrange game whenever he gets the chance. His best game of the season came on January 26, when he shot 10-12 from the field for 23 against the Toronto Raptors. Prior to that contest, he had posted single-digit minutes in 3 of the previous 6 outings. After that game, Collins said they saw holes in Toronto’s zone that allowed Speights to slip inside for a multitude of uncontested lay ins. So, even if Speights wasn’t in Collins’ game plan against Portland, like many nights this season, he is certainly willing to draw up sets that utilize Speights’ talents when needed.
Coach Collins has handed most of Speights’ minutes of late to Tony Battie, the gritty 12-year veteran brought in at the beginning of the season to fortify Philly’s defensive front line. From the looks of it, Collins is giving Battie the chance to shake the rust off headed into the post season. As playoff-style basketball is played at a much more deliberate, half-court pace, it is vital to be able to cover big men on the blocks without double-teaming. In the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals, former Celtic center Kendrick Perkins’ ability to handle Dwight Howard on the blocks by himself shook up a Magic offense predicated on passing out of double-teams for open looks from deep.
Besides Philadelphia and current 8th seed Indiana, every eastern playoff team sports a current or former All-Star big on their roster. Whether it be KG in Boston, Boozer in Chi-town, the Heat’s Chris Bosh, Howard in Orlando, Al Horford and Josh Smith in Atlanta, or Amar’e Stoudemire in the big apple, defensive stops down low will be coming at a premium come playoff time. If the big men don’t give guard and wing defenders like Iguodala the opportunity to stay home against perimeter scorers, the Sixer defense will be scrambling to chase shooters off of open looks.
At the very least, against a poor foul shooter like Howard, Battie will offer 6 expendable fouls a night that could help wear down the opposition over the stretch of the series. Against the Clippers on March 16th, Battie made what will surely prove to be his only SportsCenter appearance of the season after being charged with a flagrant foul against rookie phenom Blake Griffin. Griffin was shaken off his game that night against Philly; only shooting 3 of 12 from the field and fouling out before it was all said and done. Sometimes, the formula for getting a win boils down something as simple as sticking to your game plan while throwing your opponent off of theirs.
Against Portland, Collins looked like he could be starting to polish his post-season blueprint. While the results against the Blazers on Satuday were less than ideal, the Sixers are finally a team whose big picture is focused on the perils of the playoffs rather than the ping-pong balls of the lottery.