Thursday, February 2, 2012

Andre Iguodala and the Philadelphia 76ers Are for Real

Yesterday, I talked about how Andre Iguodala is the most unappreciated "best player on his team" in the NBA. That was before I headed down to the Wells Fargo Center with my friend and his dad to watch the Sixers dismantle the Eastern Conference-leading Chicago Bulls 98-82 behind another all-around dominant performance by Andre.

On a night in which reigning NBA MVP Derrick Rose was in the building, it was Andre Iguodala who was the best player on the court. Not Rose. Not former Bull Elton Brand. And certainly not two-time all-star Carlos Boozer. It was Andre Iguodala.

Once again, the man who everyone loves to criticize went out and did everything a basketball player can possibly do on the court, riled up a raucous Philadelphia crowd and led the Sixers to a marquee victory against one of the league's elite teams. It really was a beautiful thing to watch.

The stats are impressive enough: 19 points on 8-13 from the field and 2-3 from beyond the arc, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, a block and a few monster dunks, including this one over familiar face Kyle Korver.

But as has been the case all season long with Iggy, the stats don't tell the whole story. You see, there's just something about Andre this year that's different. It may not come through in his stat line, as he continues to put up all-around impressive numbers though nothing eye-popping, but it's in the way he carries himself and leads this young team. At 28 years old, he's the guy the rest of these youngsters look to for guidance, and you can see that Andre has embraced that role. He isn't going out there trying to prove himself any longer. He's going out there and trying to improve his teammates. And that's exactly what Iguodala is doing.

From the moment the ball was tossed in the air until the final horn sounded, Iggy controlled the game on both ends of the court. He was as a big a reason as any that the Bulls were forced to play at the Sixers' pace. Iguodala led the way, and his teammates followed suit. Because as is always the case with this Sixers team, it was a total team effort.

In the late stages of the fourth quarter, I looked up at the jumbotron from my seats in section 110 and saw this on the Sixers' side:

No. Pts. R A PF
11 17 4 5 3
9 19 9 4 3
23 14 1 6 1
21 19 8 1 0
50 15 6 3 2

Five different Sixers with at least 14 points, and all five chipping in with rebounds and assists pretty evenly distributed throughout. Jrue Holiday was brilliant in this one, keeping pace with Rose and taking care of the ball. Thaddeus Young had the quietest 19-8 game I can remember, yet did it so efficiently that it played a huge role. Plus, he, along with Elton Brand and Evan Turner, played remarkable defense. They were key in limiting the Bulls to just 82 points overall and just 11 points in the third quarter. Brand and Thad battled hard underneath against the much bigger Bulls frontcourt, rendering Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson and Omar Asik completely useless, while Turner stuck Kyle Korver and shut him down after Kyle hit some big threes early in the game. Evan also spent some time guarding Rose, making him work for everything he got.

But the second star of the game was without question rookie Lavoy Allen.

Few people really expected much if anything out of Allen in the NBA. He was a second-round pick out of Temple, a guy who had been a tremendous player for the Owls but a guy who also got criticized for what people perceived as a lack of effort. Truthfully, that's just the way Lavoy plays. He has a laid-back style. But if you watched him during his four years on North Broad Street, you know he was a battler who played tremendous post defense, rebounded like a demon — he is Temple's all-time leading rebounder after all — and made intelligent plays. Nothing flashy and sometimes not all that aggressive offensively, but incredibly effective. I envisioned him having a good career as a backup big noted for his defense and rebounding.

Still, I didn't expect much from him this season, yet here we are, with Allen having a breakout game against the best team in the Eastern Conference. His 15 points, 6 rebounds and three assists were huge, especially with his hustle plays in the first half that allowed the Sixers to take a lead into halftime. He's earned his spot on the nightshift, and Nik Vucevic is going to have to play his ass off to reclaim his place. Lavoy has simply come in and given the team a boost when it desperately needs it, with starting center Spencer Hawes still on the shelf, and he's embodying the Sixers' total team concept.

Conversely, the Bulls are still a one-man show on the offensive end. Derrick Rose is a fantastic player, one of the true elites in the league. But against excellent defensive teams like the Sixers and Heat, he needs help. Last night, he got none, as Boozer continued to suck, Noah was invisible and Luol Deng and Richard Hamilton couldn't go. That left guys like Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson responsible for getting points, and that spelled doom for the Bulls. Sure, Watson scored a game-high 20 points, but that was all the help Rose got. Take away the 38 scored by Rose and Watson, and the remainder of the Bulls put up a combined 44 points. Ugly.

Now, the naysayers out there will say that you can't really judge the Bulls without Deng and Hamilton, which is fine. Surely the Bulls are a more complete and better offensive team with those guys healthy. But even without them for portions of this season, Chicago has paced the East, so this is still a good basketball team. Plus, the Sixers didn't win solely because of their suffocating defense — though they certainly did play great defensively and now have the top defense in the entire NBA. They also managed to score 98 points against a Bulls defense that's limited opponents to just 87.9 points per game. Deng and Hamilton, for all their offense, aren't considered elite defenders, so putting up 98 points is impressive no matter how you look at it.

Then there is the fact that the Sixers completely and utterly thrashed the Chicago starters in the third quarter, outscoring the Bulls 26-11 and going up by 20 points, that Tom Thibodeau decided it was better to just rest his starters in the fourth quarter with another game on the docket tonight and a grueling road trip underway instead of leaving them out there for the demolition.

You can make all the excuses that you want to try and explain away this fast start and this impressive victory in particular — favorable schedule, facing the tough teams at home, etc. — but the fact remains that the Sixers are 16-6 this season, currently residing in second place in the Eastern Conference, and they just dismantled the only team ahead of them in the conference standings, not to mention that their best player is finally playing like a true all-star.

Last night, the atmosphere was like it was during Allen Iverson's heyday. The building was packed and the crowd was going wild. The Sixers were playing tremendous ball against one the best teams in the league. They took care of the ball and played remarkable defense. It felt 2001 all over again, I had a blast and i don't foresee that feeling going away anytime soon.

It may still be incredibly tough to fathom this team being able to get all that far in the postseason, but last night it became pretty clear: Andre Iguodala and the Philadelphia 76ers are the real deal.

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