Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Dexter and the Answer

So last night I got a basketball double-header to go along with some Monday Night Football. In the early tilt, I watched the No. 9 North Carolina Tar Heels outlast Rutgers, and then witnessed the Philadelphia 76ers somehow manage to pull away from the Portland Trail Blazers in the second half to win 104-93 in the Rose Garden. Neither game went quite as I expected.

It all began with Rutgers-UNC, which was tight in the first half, with UNC's young backcourt continuing to make freshmen/sophomore mistakes with turnovers and questionable decisions. As frustrating as it is watching the Tar Heels' guard play this season after being treated to three seasons of Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington, the thing that was bothering me the most was trying to figure out if Rutgers center Hamady Ndiaye is related to former UNC forward Makhtar Ndiaye.

From left to right: Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison, Makhtar Ndiaye and George Lynch

Carter, Julius Peppers, Ndiaye, Jamison

Now, there is no known relation between Makhtar and Hamady as far as I can tell, but they're both from Dakar, Senegal, both play/played Division I basketball and both went to prep schools. I have to believe they are related somehow. I refuse to believe otherwise.

Anyway, the game itself looked like it was getting out of reach for Rutgers, as UNC used its size and strength to build a 16-point lead. But that lead shrunk to four, as Mike Rosario went off. If you haven't seen the 6'3" sophomore from Jersey City play, trust me when I say this kid can ball. He has a stupid-ass semi-mohawk haircut, but the guy can fill it up. He was giving Carolina fits in the second half, along with Jonathan Mitchell.

During that stretch where a 16-point lead became 4, the Tar Heels looked plain awful. Ed Davis, who has been projected as a top 10 pick, looked tentative and uncharacteristically missed several easy bunnies, finishing just 3-9 from the field. The sophomore is nowhere near ready for the NBA. He hasn't even established himself enough on the college level as far as I'm concerned. He did nab 15 rebounds though, so that's a pretty damn good start, and down the stretch, he and Tyler Zeller pretty much gobbled up every board, which allowed UNC to take control at the end.

But the player who stood out for the Tar Heels was true freshman Dexter Strickland. Make no mistake, this team is run by Larry Drew II, who made some key plays, but Dexter Strickland is this team's wildcard in the backcourt. Last night, he took over the game down the stretch, hitting a back-breaking three that Rutgers was daring him to take after the Scarlet Knights had just cut UNC's lead to four. That trey pushed it back to 7, and Carolina never looked back.

The thing that was so impressive about Strickland last night was his speed and confidence. Now, very few human beings who pick up a basketball can match the speed and quickness that Ty Lawson displayed in his three seasons in Chapel Hill, but Strickland isn't all that far behind. Touted mainly as a shooter, that part of his game wasn't mentioned or perhaps wasn't there when he was in high school. Hell, it wasn't there early in the year, but since beating Michigan State, Strickland has shown the explosiveness that this backcourt desperately needs, especially in Roy Williams' run, run, run system. Strickland gave Carolina that last night, and he demanded the ball down the stretch, showing no fear as a freshman. You could see his confidence grow with each bucket. He finished with a team-high 18 points on 6-8 shooting and 5-6 from the line. And he was the best player on the floor wearing baby blue.

Of course, the Heels had the superior athletes and more depth, evident by the six players who scored in double digits (Drew 10, Davis 11, Deon Thompson 14, Will Graves 10, Strickland 18, Zeller 10). But that game continued to prove that this will be a trying year watching North Carolina. Even with Strickland improving and looking confident, and Larry Drew playing steadier ball, the guards simply aren't as good as people have grown accustomed to at North Carolina. But they're still a big team with a ton of depth and ranked in the top 10, so it's not exactly a down year either. We'll have to wait and see just what we can expect from this squad in 2010.

For the Sixers, however, it has been a down year. A way down year. My main reason for wanting to stay up and watch the game last night was to see Brandon Roy do his thing and see a talented Blazers team that had won four in a row. I don't get to watch nearly as many Portland games as I'd like.

But once the game started, I could tell the Sixers had come to play, not just concede a victory to the Blazers. Allen Iverson came out and scored six points in the first quarter of his first game back from knee arthritis, and the Sixers were hanging tough. Sure, Roy was getting his and the Blazers took a lead into halftime, but the Sixers were making Roy and the Blazers work for everything and sticking with them, heading into halftime a very confident team.

And that confidence carried right on over to the second half. The Sixers came out on fire, putting up 34 points in the 3rd while getting contributions from everyone: Brand led everyone with 10 in quarter, Iggy added 7, Dalembert and Lou Will each had four, Al and Speights each had 2 and Royal Ivey even had a cameo, scoring 5 points on a three and a buzzer-beating two to close out the quarter. The Sixers looked enthused, excited and good. As a result, a six-point deficit turned into a 4-point lead heading into the final 12 minutes. And this time, the team that couldn't close out games finally did. And they did so because of Allen Iverson.

All season long, this team has been in games, but they haven't been able to finish them. For all the good Andre Iguodala does, and he does plenty of good, he hasn't been able to carry a team on his shoulders down the stretch. Neither has Brand. Or Speights. Or Thad. Or anyone. Allen Iverson has been doing that his entire career, and he did it again last night, scoring a team-high 9 points in the final quarter. And the Sixers followed suit, closing out a talented Blazers team on the road.

Say what you will about Allen Iverson's age, his past, his deficiencies. Last night proved that with a full complement of players, the Sixers are better with Allen Iverson than without him. He knows how to close, and he showed his younger teammates how to do just that last night.

Uncoincidentally, the Sixers played perhaps their best game of the season last night. Everyone contributed, everyone chipped in. And Allen Iverson was a big part of that. A.I. scored 19 points on a very efficient, very unselfish 7-11 from the floor. He got to the line a game-high seven times (tied with Brandon Roy), nabbed three rebounds and dished out five assists in 31 minutes of action. He looked a lot like the Iverson of old, swishing home jumpers, attacking the rim … and looked a lot like a newer, older, wiser Iverson at the same time, dishing out 5 assists, not taking any wild, contested shots, playing selfless basketball, not selfish basketball. And the whole team benefitted.

Elton Brand was aggressive, assertive and dominant. He scored a game-high 25 points on 11-16 shooting, nabbing 9 boards in the process. Andre Iguodala had an insane floor game, putting up 14 points, 7 boards, 9 assists, a steal, two threes, and shooting 6-13 from the field, all while playing 43 minutes and hounding Brandon Roy on the defensive end. Samuel Dalembert continued to show he absolutely loves playing with Iverson, putting up 14 points and 8 boards himself on 7-9 shooting, and not committing a slew of boneheaded fouls. He just seems to be more interested, to play harder, better when Iverson is in the lineup. Lou Will didn't have a great game stats-wise, but he did play 35 minutes, wasn't forcing the issue, and added five boards, five dimes and 3 steals to his 9 points. And Speights and Ivey were fantastic. Marreese rebounded from his awful game in Utah by hitting 7-8 from the field for 14 points, and Ivey came in, hit those two buckets in the third, nabbed three boards and dished out two assists in 16 and a half minutes of play, putting up a +15 for the night.

Iverson's presence helped everyone out last night. If you watched the game, that was abundantly clear. Yes, it did take away playing time from Jrue Holiday, who only saw 11 minutes of action, and yes, Willie Green and Jason Kapono got DNPs, and yes, in the end, this may hinder the draft position and slow up the progress of Holiday. But dammit, it was fun to watch the Sixers play such a great game. To beat a good team on the road. To show signs of the team that for two seasons running has made the playoffs and given far superior teams a scare in the first round. Even in the midst of a terrible season, even with the hopes of scoring a high draft pick, even while dreaming of John Wall or Derrick Favors, losing is never fun to watch, never fun to expect, never fun to accept. Last night was fun. And if it wasn't fun for you, maybe you aren't as big of a Sixers or basketball fan as you thought.

No, Allen Iverson isn't the answer to a championship. He may not even be the answer to turning the season around, to making a playoff push. But he is the answer to more entertaining basketball, and he makes the 76ers better. Last night was proof of that.

BallHype: hype it up!

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