Whew, that was a close one. The 76ers fended off Jerryd Bayless and a late-charging Raptor squad, 98-93, in Philadelphia on Friday night. The win kept the Sixers a half game behind the Knicks for the 6th seed in the East, with games against Orlando and Detroit to go.
In the first half, the Sixers (41-39) came out like a team determined to absolve itself from its first 3 game slide since November. They started a strong – building a lead midway through the first that was as large and 15 and, at halftime, sat at 12. The Sixers got outright greedy on defense; collecting steals, forcing turnovers, and at one point icing the Raptors into an 0-14 stretch from the field.
All was not perfect for Philly, though. The Raptors (21-58) turned their fortunes around in the second half, albeit behind some ridiculously streaky shooting (12-18 in the third), but they fought back nonetheless. At their hottest, Jerryd Bayless made a 25-foot three pointer as the shot clock dwindled to take the Raptors lone second-half lead. Credit goes to Sixer big men Elton Brand and Theddeus Young, who kept a persistent presence in the paint against a depleted Toronto front line that was missing 7-footer Andrea Bargnani. Amongst Philly’s anemic shooting from beyond the arc, the duo established a presence in the middle to help the team garner 50 points in the paint. EB’s 22 and Young’s 20 led the way for Philadelphia, with Thad outscoring the entire Toronto bench himself, 20-11. The Sixers, though, sorely missed offensive sparkplug Lou Williams and his production off the bench.
Hopefully, Lou will avoid any and all setbacks and his ailing hamstring will be healthy by the playoffs. Evan Turner played well, though not outstanding, in his absence. Turner finished Firday night with 10, and also handled the increased ball-handling duties well. Without Williams, though, the second unit has no one beyond Young who can create their own shot and consistently finish. Also, with Jodie Meeks fighting through a recent cold spell, the team is left with virtually no 3-point threat – Meeks went a paltry 2-9 on Friday as the team went 3-11 collectively.
Doug Collins ever so eloquently summed it up after the game; “Our rotation is screwed up right now.” Besides Turner and Young, the reserves barely saw any action against Toronto (newcomer Antonio Daniels was the only other bench player to make it in the game, a scarce 4 minutes). The team’s roles have been solidified since the All-Star break, and Lou’s injury could not come at a worse time for a team getting in postseason form (and, less we forget, still fighting for playoff position). The Sixers, sans Williams, would surely be outgunned in a first round matchup against overpowering foes such as the Celtics or Heat. Having to fight for every basket that much more in the playoffs, Philly will need his fearlessness on the offensive end come next weekend and beyond.
The good news is the 76ers avoided the 4 game stumble, and got back to winning ways. When asked, Brand said the looming playoffs might have attributed to the losing streak. “I hope we’re not looking ahead. Maybe that has a little bit to do with it…I just want to see us keep growing, not go backwards.”
Perhaps fearing an overload on his players, Coach Collins gave the team Saturday off to clear their heads before Monday’s matchup with the Magic. With Orlando locked into their playoff seeding (4th, hosting the 5th seeded Atlanta Hawks), it will be interesting to see whether or not the Sixers get the Magic playing at full-tilt, or in pre-playoff rest mode.
With the W, the Sixers put the train back on the tracks and pushed it in the right direction. It is important now for the team to use the last two games remaining to focus on executing the minute details, and return to the playoff form they were showing before their 3 game losing streak.