Clinched: Sixers rout Nets to earn playoff spot

By MIKE CUSTER
Staff Writer — mcuster@highhopesblog.com
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Elton Brand dunks over Nets center Brook Lopez. Brand had 21 points on the night. (Courtesy AP)

After a one-season hiatus, playoff basketball will be making its return to Philadelphia.  The 76ers triumphed over the lowly New Jersey Nets, 115-90, Friday night in Philly.

The game itself was a bona fide blowout, with the Sixers’ lead eclipsing 30 before bench players ate up garbage time in the 4th.  With Nets’ all-world point guard Derron Williams limited to 4 points, New Jersey offered little resistance to the Philadelphia assault.

What’s more important is that the win emphatically punched the Sixers’ postseason ticket for the first time since ’09.  The celebration in the locker room afterward marked a moment of vindication for a team that has come a long way in just one year.

Unlike many NBA franchises who take dramatic jumps in the standings from one year to the next, this playoff-bound Sixers roster bares a strong resemblance to the team that won only 27 games last year.

There was no off-season roster overhaul.  No marquee Amar’e Stoudemire, LeBron James-esque signings.  The team’s unexpectedly high draft pick, Evan Turner, has contributed in limited quantities as he’s developed over the course of the season.

So what changed?

The only newsworthy addition was new coach Doug Collins, who returned to the sidelines for the first time since 2003.  Replacing the incumbent Eddie Jordan, Collins revitalized a young squad by keying into their strengths, namely energy and chemistry, in lieu of Jordan’s ill-suited Princeton offense.

More importantly, he has given the team an identity.

Since the end of the Iverson era, basketball fans in Philly have been waiting for the next “the guy” to take up the mantle for the franchise.  Instead of offering up one player to carry the torch, Collins has sold the team-first concept both internally and to the fan base as well, showing a contagious appreciation for the players who do the little things.

In turn, players are going the extra mile to fulfill their role night in and night out.  Energy players Thad Young and Lou Williams have stepped their games up incredibly off the bench.  After the win on Friday, Nets coach Avery Johnson touted Young as the Sixers’ MVP, and he’s certainly been playing like it lately.  Young and Williams both have the talent to be starting in the league, but have relished the opportunity to bring instant offense of the pine.

Jrue Holiday has grown by leaps and bounds this year.  Improving in every statistical category, save for 3-pt shooting percentage, Holiday is looking more and more like a draft steal at number 17 measured against some of the point guards taken ahead of him (#4 Ricky Rubio, #5 Jonny Flynn, #10 Brandon Jennings) who have failed to meet their pre-draft hype.

Another second-year guard, Jodie Meeks, has come out of nowhere to become the 3-point threat the Sixers have lacked (last in 3-pt % a year ago) since losing Kyle Korver.

Elton Brand, whose signing in July of ’08 was supposed to save the franchise, has delivered this year as a model of consistency for the team.  The 76ers leader in points and rebounds, he has fully adjusted his game to offset the career-threatening injuries that slowed him his first two years in Philly.

At first, EB looked slightly lost without some of the physical gifts that made him a number one overall pick in 1999.  Now, he has polished his post moves and thrives off a smooth 12-foot jumper he uses to thwart opposing defenses.  He uses his freakishly long arms (7’5” wingspan) to poke steals and disrupt shots on the defensive end

Some will always argue his contract cripples the payroll, but the fact is the guy that gets paid the most is leading the team in two very important statistical categories.

Then there is the much-maligned Andre Iguodala.

Depending on whom you asked, Iguodala has been on the trading block every February in recent memory.  However, he has endured and still rocks the Sixer red-and-blue.  It says a lot about Igoudala’s character for him to endure the backlash from failing to be the “new” A.I. after Iverson was traded to Denver.  Iggy has always been more Pippen than Jordan, and the way he spreads out his contributions over an entire box score mirrors the way the team attacks its opponents on the hardwood.  His perimeter defense is second to none, and he has the hops to throw down a momentum-turning dunk at anytime.

In a sense, his ability to operate amongst the medley of Sixer performers has become his, and the team’s, greatest strength.

In reality, the team has yet to win anything palpable.  They don’t throw parades for making the playoffs.  And with the seeding still yet to be set in stone, there are still regular season games to be won.  But, the team has achieved something substantial – returning basketball to relevancy in the city.  With a likeable, hard-working squad that plays the right way, Philadelphians again have a team they can be proud to support.

From the depths of that 3-13 start, the 76ers have arisen from the ashes – and into the playoffs.

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