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March 26, 2015

Sixers break 16-game road losing streak with victory in Denver, 99-85

Nerlens Noel continued his Rookie of the Year push with 14 points, 15 rebounds, two assists, four steals, and four blocks

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One night after coming oh so close, the Sixers ended their two-month road woes with a 99-85 victory over the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center. Here’s what I saw:

The skinny

What the Sixers did tonight was legitimately impressive. They lost in an extremely difficult fashion last night on the final possession in Sacramento, had to make the long flight to Denver overnight, and were playing in the high altitude on the second night of a back-to-back. That is the definition of a schedule loss. Winners of five of their last eight games under interim coach Melvin Hunt, the Nuggets aren’t the dysfunctional pushovers they were when the two teams met in Philly in early February, either. They also hadn’t played since Sunday, the much fresher of the two teams.

All of those factors were going against them, and the Sixers still won by 14 points. Marc Zumoff and Malik Rose kept harping on it during the broadcast, but it was strange to see how much fresher the Sixers looked when all signs pointed to Denver getting out in transition with ease. Nope. Nerlens “Henry Rowengartner” Noel and Robert Covington played starring roles, the Sixers as a team took advantage of the 3-point line, and they ended a long losing streak.

This is where you ask if they should they be losing. Absolutely! But in all honesty, what are they going to do within the limits of good taste? Pull Allen Iverson out of the stands and let him jack up 30 shots per game? OK, that might actually be a fine idea, but the Sixers won tonight’s game with a bunch of unheralded first and second-year players accompanied by Jason Richardson. If that group wins, it's because they deserve it.


Offensive observations

1. Bobby Buckets is back, y’all. Covington shot 6-11 from deep en route to 25 points, and a few of those were of the contested variety in transition where there’s really now way to defend it. The ability to make difficult shots is a skill as long as you don't rely on them, and Covington can hit them in bunches. At 6-foot-9 and utilizing a high release, Covington can shoot the ball effortlessly even if there’s a hand in his face.

As Brett Brown told reporters after the game, “His long ball… catches people off guard, because sometimes he rises up and people aren’t expecting him to shoot with that type of range or that soon. I know I’m not sometimes.”

2. For one of Covington’s 3s, the Sixers ran a pretty sweet “Hammer” set. Aesthetically, that’s my favorite wrinkle Brown runs besides the occasional “Elevator Doors.”

3. Brown was playing the role of hype man for Noel's ROY candidacy after the game, and I have to say, his recent streak of scoring 10-16 points per game on 7-10 shots and 4-8 free throws has been very impressive for a player who looked so lost offensively in November and December. He's churning those types of efforts out with regularity. As I said on Twitter, Noel's lefty running hook isn’t “a thing” yet, but it’s close.

4. Early in the fourth quarter, the action became really ragged on both ends of the floor. Both teams were trying to play up-tempo and took a bunch of quick shots. For a couple of minutes, there was some very bad basketball.

5. Speaking of bad basketball, most coaches won’t stop the game if both teams are playing poorly on offense, but not Brett Brown. When he doesn’t like his team’s process on the offensive end of the floor, he’ll always opt for a quick 20-second timeout. Let’s call that “a culture timeout.”

6. Let’s just say that Isaiah Canaan is not quite Blake Griffin around the rim, but he did make a couple of long balls.

7. Finally, a Glenn Robinson III sighting! “The Little Dog” only played three first-half minutes, and immediately committed a live-ball turnover that led to Denver points on the other end. 

8. A player that Furkan Aldemir should study in the offseason is Tyson Chandler, who has mastered the tip out offensive rebound, which is a very valuable skill. Aldemir pulled down four conventional offensive boards in a 14-minute run.

Defensive deductions

1. From the opening tip, Noel and Jerami Grant were challenging ev-er-y-thing at the rim. A couple of Grant’s blocks were Dalhaussers of the highest order, and sometimes it even looked like the two rooks were fighting to see who could get to the shot first. The duo combined for nine swats, and Noel altered a bunch more shot attempts. By the end of the game, Ty Lawson noticeably didn’t want much to do with the paint.

2. I pick on Canaan a lot (he did score 15 points and was actually pretty close to a net neutral overall), but it seemed like he didn’t know the defensive principles a couple of times when Lawson drove right by him for layups on the left side of the floor. I’d have to go back and look at the plays, but either he or someone on the back line wasn’t on the right page.

3. In general, the Nuggets didn’t move the ball very well. The Sixers didn’t either, but they happened to make more shots. As Doc Rivers always says, “It’s a make or miss league.” When you don’t have a huge mismatch (i.e. Boogie Cousins) and are attacking the Sixers, the ball has to move from side-to-side better than Denver was able to do tonight. The Sixers have too many talented individual defenders.

Stat stuff

Sixers: 6.1 blocks per game, 3rd in NBA
Sixers opponents’ field goal percentage, shots less than 5 feet: 56.1 percent, 6th in the NBA

Looking back at his first two drafts, it seems like rim protection is going to a major part of Sixers’ identity with Sam “Violence at the Rim” Hinkie in the fold. It’s generally why I think he has always valued Noel the way the general public has only recently begun to. Simply as a basketball fan, I’m pretty geeked to watch Noel and Embiid defensively on the floor at the same time next year. For now, Grant and Noel tossing shots into the third row will have to suffice.

Player of the game

At around this time last year, I developed a pretty big crush on Andrew Wiggins, so much so that I did this:

Basically, what I’m trying to say here is that it’s possible to do the exact same thing with “Nerlens.” Don't fight the itch. Post-Trade Deadline Standings: Noel 9, Smith 5, Covington 4, Grant 3, Thompson 3, Robinson 2, LRMAM 1, Sampson 1, Richardson 1, and Canaan 1.

Tweet of the night

The Nuggets didn’t record a point until Wilson Chandler knocked down a corner 3 with 7:47 remaining in the first quarter. Similar to Oklahoma City and a bunch of colleges, the Denver fans have the tradition of standing until the home team scores. Personally, I think all this does is place additional pressure on the players if they don’t make one of their first few shots.

My problem with the Nuggets fans is that they didn’t commit to standing all the way. From the broadcast, it appeared as if many of them sat down after Melvin Hunt called a timeout at 9:23 when the Sixers jumped out to an 8-0 lead and then stood up when both teams resumed play. Come on, Denver. I know you’re not usually fence-sitters. Pick a side!