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April 05, 2018

Sixers lock Stan Van Gundy in dumpster, end Detroit's playoff hopes with season sweep

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Before we get to Wednesday night's game, let's go back several years, before Joel Embiid was drafted, before Michael Carter-Williams was traded, before any of us had any clue how "The Process" would turn out. Long before the Sixers swept the Pistons in their 2017-18 season series, Stan Van Gundy was gravely concerned with Philadelphia's approach to rebuilding their team.

Take it away, Stan of 2014:

"Not what Philadelphia is doing right now, which is embarrassing," Van Gundy said in a panel that current Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie attended. "I don't care, [commissioner] Adam Silver can say there's no tanking or what's going on -- if you're putting that roster on the floor, you're doing everything you can possibly do to try to lose."

From there, the Sixers would draft an injured big man, a Croatian forward who wouldn't come over for two seasons, another center, trade their second-year point guard, and eventually punctuate their stretch at the bottom of the NBA with a 10-win season, one of the worst the NBA has ever seen.

And there is a more important Van Gundy quote from just last year when he continued to debate the merits of the rebuild with Detroit radio host Mike Valenti:

The second thing I’d ask you is, “When has that approach worked? Who has won the championship coming from that?”

A championship is still off in the distance, for now. But four years after Van Gundy stepped up to the microphone and put the franchise on blast, they are kicking the shit out of Van Gundy at every possible opportunity and did so again on Wednesday night. It is pretty safe to say what the Sixers did is "working" a hell of a lot better than his tire fire in Detroit.

While the Sixers focused on swinging for the fences and playing the long game for big dividends later, Van Gundy took over in Detroit on both the coaching and managerial side and did what most coaches with GM power do — they looked for Band-Aids and quick fixes. In and out the veterans came — Marcus Morris, Steve Blake, Aron Baynes, even the same Ersan Ilyasova who helped defeat him on Wednesday night — with little to no youthful talent to supplement it. They are capped to the gills moving forward, built around a trio of players in Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin, and Reggie Jackson that could only lead a title team if an extinction-level event consumed all of America except the state of Michigan.

The Pistons are, in many respects, the exact same franchise the Sixers were in the mid-2000's. There are men named Andre leading the way, inefficient guards steering the ship, and an expensive acquisition filling their cap sheet for the foreseeable future, despite his best days from a health and production standpoint likely behind him.

Detroit has spent every possible resource at their disposal, and what they have been left with is not a single playoff win since 2007-08. I do not mean a series — as a franchise, the Pistons have not won a single game in the playoffs since before Barack Obama was elected president.

Underneath the communal bonding, the entertainment, the showcase that is professional sports, it is all about investment in something at the end of the day. This is true from both sides of the fan and franchise equation: you at home choose to invest your time, your money, and your energy on players and teams you love, while different organizations invest their (much bigger sums of) money, time, and manpower to offer products of varying value. 

They'd like you to believe all 30 NBA products are of equal value, but that is simply not the case. Before the rebuild, Sixers fans were being asked to invest in a team and a product with no upside, no flair, and no path to future contention. 

And so the Sixers, stuck in the middle with no way out, communicated a pretty transparent message to their fans — we need to step back to move forward. What you see today is a product of a lot of things, but it is primarily due to that mantra, and a willingness to eat short-term failure for long-term growth.

What you see in Detroit, on the other hand, is what happens when someone does the managerial equivalent of pissing on your head and telling you it's raining. What you see in Detroit is the pattern of every brain-dead franchise that has ever existed in the NBA, spinning their wheels in the mud hoping for a miracle to drop out of the sky. What you see are the dying days of a once-successful coach who thought he could run a team too, instead of having the self-awareness to acknowledge how that arrangement, historically, has been a recipe for failure across all levels of professional sports.

But hey, maybe the Pistons will come up with an impact player in the dra—oh, right, they traded their first away for Griffin at the deadline. 

Now that's embarrassing.

Anyway, about that Redick performance

I'm not sure if this was JJ Redick's best game in a Sixers uniform, but it was one in which his performance was most critical to the win. Down Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, the Sixers also had to deal with Robert Covington foul trouble just over three minutes into the game. Brett Brown badly needed someone to step up.

Boy, did Redick do that. He scored 13 points in the first quarter and buoyed the team during a sluggish start on a back-to-back, and closed the game with 25 points on 10/13 shooting, along with a vital six assists as a secondary playmaker. His coach was effusive with praise after the win, spotlighting how much Redick means to the team on multiple levels.

"He just has a ridiculous level of energy and a ridiculous level of professionalism. And when you combine those two and our guys see his preparation, and they see how much he genuinely cares, it's an incredible sort of package," said Brown. "I've been around the game for a long time, and he sure is for me amongst my all-time favorites and ones I truly respect."

Redick's passing has been somewhat of an adventure this season because without Fultz in the lineup, he has been asked to do more ballhandling than he is really equipped to handle. He's a smart player and an unselfish one at that, but he is at his best when he can just let it rip from deep.

But at his best, Redick is able to turn that shooting threat into a tool that eases his reads in the passing game. You could see that play out in his late-game assist to Ersan Ilyasova, when Detroit's defense was so scared of Redick beyond the arc they just completely forgot they had to defend another shooter.

His future here remains uncertain because of the plans Philadelphia has to chase big-name players in the summer, but it sure feels like the Sixers need him back next season. His professionalism, his three-point shooting, and his reliability have made him an asset on so many levels for this team.

Markelle Fultz took a three-point shot, for real

It wasn't the easiest night at the office for young Fultz, as he turned in a 2/7 shooting performance and even got snuffed from behind at the rim by Ish Smith of all people. But in the middle of his tough shooting night, we got a glimpse of something we haven't seen in a while: a three-point shot.

The last time we'd seen Fultz shoot a jumper from distance in a real game came all the way back in summer league before his shooting saga nearly wiped out his rookie season. At the end of the third quarter on Wednesday, Fultz was forced into putting one up from deep, and it looked like, well, this:

You can make your own judgment on the form — personally, I think it's not great, but it's at least in the middle between his UW form and the horrific state we saw it in before the season — and we could probably debate that to death. What I think is important from the play is his decision to take it at all, which I have been harping on in these recaps since he returned.

Even if it's out of necessity at the end of a quarter, Fultz still had to set himself up on the wing there to prepare for a shot. With how he has played during his brief time on the court, he could have easily just cut to the basket after dumping the pass off, avoiding the possibility altogether. Instead, he put himself in a position where he had to know he might have to shoot and eventually let it fly.

Whether he'll do this in the natural flow of a game remains to be seen, because you can see how his lack of shooting junks up Philadelphia's offense even though the second unit has done well with him out there. He is often fighting his own instincts when the ball isn't in his hands, as he did when he left a wide-open space at the top of the key and ran right into the space JJ Redick was dribbling into here:

Does the old Fultz just remain there and demand the ball for a wide-open look from three, or is this more a product of unfamiliarity with his teammates? It could be a mix of both, but it's ultimately something that needs to be cleaned up. 

Friday night is the biggest regular season game for Philadelphia in who knows how long

Philadelphia's win over the Pistons is important on many fronts, none bigger than its immediate impace on the Eastern Conference standings. With four games left to play, the Sixers are in a dead heat with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the No. 3 seed.

Team Record (games back) 
 3. Cleveland Cavaliers48-30 
 4. Philadelphia 76ers48-30 
 5. Indiana Pacers46-32 (2.0) 
 6. Miami Heat43-36 (5.5)
 7. Washington Wizards42-36 (6.0)

It's possible the Sixers could go into their matchup with Cleveland with the outright lead in the standings, due to Cleveland's game against the Wizards on Thursday night. If the Wizards were to emerge triumphant on Thursday, the Sixers could go up 1.5 games on Cleveland for the No. 3 seed with a win on Friday, and the Sixers would be able to lock up that spot with wins in their two subsequent games against Dallas and Atlanta. Even if Cleveland wins on Thursday, the Sixers can still take control of their own destiny by beating LeBron James and Co. on Friday night.

That will certainly add some juice to a building that would have had plenty of it regardless of the stakes involved. With many fans still buzzing about the Sixers potentially signing LeBron in the offseason, this represents one last time to show him exactly what it can be like to play in front of a packed house in Philadelphia. The Wells Fargo Center will be rocking, and the playoff implications only add to the theater.

To drive the point home from the extended rant up top: the Sixers matter again. And it will be a heck of a lot of fun to see the Philly faithful try to lift their team to an important win as they make one last push ahead of the playoffs.

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