A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how I don't think the Sixers really have any players that I love the way I love Allen Iverson, the way I love Brian Dawkins, the way I love Cliff Lee and Claude Giroux. Well, all it took was one short but definitely sweet playoff series for these players to change all of that.
I was batting around the idea of falling in love with Jrue Holiday right when the Sixers drafted him, but I had that nagging feeling that I would have preferred to see Ty Lawson in Philadelphia. After watching Jrue never back down for five games against the Heat, seeing him hit a huge three on Easter Sunday to help the Sixers win, after watching him mature game in and game out into the floor leader of the team, I fell in love with Jrue Holiday's game. Just like Doug Collins and the Sixers made me fall in love with this team.
As Andrew over at The700Level so eloquently put it, last night was perhaps the best loss ever. Heading into this series, I didn't think the Sixers stood a chance in hell. I thought a sweep was predetermined, and honestly thought this team would have trouble hanging in more than a game or two. But the Sixers proved me wrong on all accounts.
There was no sweep. These guys simply wouldn't let that happen. And they didn't just hang tough in one or two of the games, they were right there in four out of the five. Only game 2 resembled what I anticipated. In each of the other four contests, the Sixers honestly had a chance to win, including last night. Heading into the series, I would have never thought that would be possible.
But last night was a microcosm for the series. The Sixers never once came out scared, and again last night they jumped out to an early lead and forced Eric Spoelstra to call the first timeout. Again they absorbed Miami's counterpunch, took it in stride and refused to back down. And again they were right there in the final quarter, in position to make the Heat sweat and earn every once of that victory.
And last night, every player on this team showed their true colors. I'll never be able to fully embrace Elton Brand because he's a Dukie and may or may not have misguided Baron Davis. But after this season and especially this series, I have the utmost respect for Brand. All season long, he has been the most consistent and honestly best player for the 76ers. This series and last night's game was no different.
Brand showed why the Sixers were willing to pay him so much money, even coming off a serious injury. Dude battled for everything last night and all series long. He finished with a team-high 22 points, battled Chris Bosh down low and earned the respect of every Sixers fan that actually gives a damn about this team. I didn't want the Sixers to sign Elton Brand. I never liked him. But without Elton Brand, this team never has a chance to stay close with the Miami Heat, and this team is nowhere near the playoffs this season.
Philadelphia's other favorite basketball target started this series off slow, but in game 4 and especially last night, Andre Iguodala showed who he really is. Everyone already knows what he is not — a franchise player and go-to scorer. But what he is is a terrific defender, fantastic distributor and excellent finisher. Last night, Andre Iguodala was all of those things. He attacked the rim with reckless abandon. He defended LeBron and Wade as well as anyone can, just like he did all series. He rebounded and set up his teammates. He got out in transition. And when the Sixers really needed him to hit some big shots, he did.
He's never going to be Allen Iverson. His contract will always be a sore point. But if Andre Iguodala plays every night the way he did last night, the Sixers are much better off than it appeared they were just a few short months ago.
Just like they look much better off having taken Evan Turner with the second overall pick than they did even two weeks ago. There's no way to sugarcoat it: Evan Turner underachieved in his rookie season. He oftentimes looked lost, puzzled and overmatched. It was almost as if the player who won the Naismith Award was replaced by doe-eyed freshman terrified to death to be on the court with the big, bad seniors. He struggled so much that Doug Collins didn't even play him some nights.
But Evan Turner didn't let that dissuade him. As his playing time increased at the end of the season, his confidence began to grow. And in this playoff series, going against Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, he played by far the best basketball of his rookie season. Turner took the challenge of guarding LeBron or even a few times Wade personally, and it seemed to elevate his game. For the first time all season, Turner looked confident and aggressive every time he was in the game. In game 4, he had the best game of his NBA life. And last night, even though he scored just 4 points and missed a very big bucket late that would have tied it, he showed he belonged and is much better than he showed this season. His 10 rebounds, tying Iguodala for the team high, is proof of that.
Then there is Thaddeus Young, who had a breakout season. Young struggled at times in the series, but he never began to press the issue. And last night, he stepped his game again, hitting some clutch shots in fourth quarter to help keep the Sixers in it.
Throw in the passing styles of Spencer Hawes, who was drawing rave reviews from Steve Kerr, the big brass balls Lou Williams showed Sunday despite struggling most of the series, the development of Jodie Meeks, and this team is definitely moving in the right direction.
Last night, they showed the world what Doug Collins has molded them into, and you could hear the genuine admiration Dwyane Wade has for this team and this coach in his postgame interview. The Sixers are no longer the laughingstock they were last season. No, they're the polar opposite. Doug Collins made this collection of players into true competitors. The Sixers are now a team everyone has to take seriously. Just ask the Miami Heat.
Oh, and on a slightly different note, Kevin Durant, MY GOD! I guess Russell Westbrook got the message. And Durant made sure to put an exclamation point on that. He is unbelievable.