Monday, December 21, 2009

The Ace of Speights

As I already mentioned, I watched the Sixers defeat the 21-5, Eastern Conference leading Celtics 98-97 Friday night in Boston and then immediately turn around and lose to the 12-14, 12th-place Clippers 112-107 in overtime at home on Saturday. It hurts my brain trying to figure it out. It really does.

But one thing that is not hard to figure out is that it is quite nice to have Marreese Speights back.

In his first action back from injury, Speights scored 14 points and looked energetic and healthy against the Cavs last Wednesday. And he seemed to really pick up steam this weekend, suffering no ill effects from his injury. On Friday, against a very physical, very talented Boston front line, Speights chipped in 17 points and 10 rebounds in the Sixers' victory. And more importantly, he looked aggressive and assertive, showing not timidness in just his second game back. That was evident by the 16 shots he hoisted and eight trips he took to the free throw line. And while scoring 17 points on 16 shots isn't very efficient, Speights' contributions were undeniable in the takedown of Boston. He provided incredibly energy off the bench, flying all over the place, matched his career high in rebounds with 10, and really gave the Celtics fits while providing the Sixers with a boost. Plus, his presence has clearly benefitted Elton Brand, who had by far his best game of the season, perhaps his best game as a 76er, Friday night.

Coming in along with Speights as a frontcourt tandem off the bench, Brand has found himself more space inside and less attention with the emergence of Marreese. And coming in against the opposition's second unit has allowed Brand to dominate lesser players and boost his confidence to continue that play against starters, as Ed Pinckney astutely pointed out. That scenario was on full display against the Celtics, where Brand scored a game-high 23 points on a very efficient 7-12 shooting and 9-10 from the line to go along with 8 rebounds and 2 blocks. The Sixers were a +11 with him on the floor, and a +9 with Speights on the floor. This duo seems to be working very well coming off the bench together, and Speights has allowed Brand to flourish, never more evident than the game-winning tip by Brand, which came off an offensive board from a Speights miss.

As I noted earlier, Speights showed no hesitancy, and despite missing the shot, it was good to see he wasn't afraid to take it. And Elton bailed out his teammate who has been helping him regain his form. Oh, and kudos to Eddie Jordan for once, who finally stuck with the players who got him in position to win in crunch time. Take a look at the players on the floor in those final seconds: Elton Brand, Marreese Speights, Andre Iguodala, Willie Green and Jrue Holiday. Speights and Brand played well all night; Iguodala had a nice all-around game with 18 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists, not to mention strong defense that limited Paul Pierce to just 9 points; Jrue played hounding defense on the ball, helping to force 21 Boston turnovers, and added 7 assists; and Willie Green, despite what I may think of him as a player, contributed 16 points and tough defense himself. Eddie saw that those were his best five players Friday night and let them finish it out. Those players rewarded him with a victory to snap Boston's 11-game winning streak.

It's nice to know Jordan's not completely incompetent. Though I may have to retract that statement if he was the one who called the final play in regulation for the Sixers on Saturday.

Yes, that was a miraculous shot by Andre Iguodala. And yes, it would have won the game had he gotten out of his hands a millisecond earlier (hell, it's still tough to tell if he actually did or did not get it off), but damn, that was one horrible play. In fact, when he hit the shot, though we were both amazed, my roommate and I both had almost a disgusted reaction. Iguodala overdribbled, went right into a double team, got the ball knocked away from him and took a contested, double-teamed fadeaway as the final shot. Really, that's the best look you could get? It made us especially angry because it showcased how terrible of a ball-handler Iggy is in crunch time, how he never creates a good shot for himself or his teammates in that instance, yet the fact that he made a ridiculously stupid shot people would think he's actually a good option to create the best possible shot at buzzer-beater time. In reality, it was horrible … and horribly lucky. Until it wasn't, because he wasted too much time anyway thanks to going into a double team and getting the ball knocked away.

The reason that this play bugged me so much is that Speights was completely killing it in the fourth quarter. I mean just owning the Clippers. He scored 12 points in the quarter, doing it every way imaginable: dunks, layups, jumpers, fadeaways, getting to the line. Yeah, he missed a couple key free throws in the quarter, and yeah, Iguodala was having a good game in his own right, but Speights was just beasting it, thriving as the go-to guy down the stretch and taking it to Los Angeles. The man couldn't be stopped. And on that final possession in regulation, I was calling for his number. That was his shot to take. He earned it, and Iggy has proven multiple times this season and seasons past that he can't really create a very high-percentage look for himself. Give Speights a try at it. It did seem to work out pretty well for the Sixers Friday night, even if he did miss the shot that was eventually tipped in by Brand.

But no, the play was an iso for Iggy from the start, and that's what it was going to be no matter. Why would he drive to the lane and look for a teammate or try to get a look inside, maybe get fouled? Why would the Sixers not put the ball in Speights' hands, who had done nothing but score 24 points to that point? Or even, god forbid, try to get Brand or Thaddeus Young, who both had nice games (Brand with 14 points on 7-13 and Thad with 19 points on 9-17 and 8 boards), a good look when the double team came? Because Andre Iguodala is a moron and thinks he's much, much better than he is. The guy is not a closer. Just isn't. Yes, he's made some game-winners in his career, and he is a very good player that I'm glad I get to watch with regularity, but I know when push comes to shove, he will not create a good look at the end of the game. He may make an insanely difficult shot from time to time, but he'll never get an easy look for the Sixers. Ever.

And that's really frustrating, especially when a guy like Marreese Speights was playing so well, so aggressive and dominating late in the game. He was the guy with the confidence, the guy who was getting it done. And he wasn't even a thought for that final play. That's a disgrace for a guy who finished with 28 points, 9 boards and got to the line a game-high 9 times, and a guy who was the best player in a Sixers uniform Saturday night.

Unsurprisingly, the Sixers then got outscored by five in overtime to lose 112-107, a night after beating the Celtics.

Just another chapter in a very underwhelming season thus far. At least Speights looks every bit like the player who was starting to go on a tear before his injury. He's back, and the past two nights, he was quite possibly the Sixers' best player.

BallHype: hype it up!

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