Phil Sheridan: Sixers show they're a good team, no matter the opponent

Posted: February 06, 2012

It is time to stop talking about measuring-stick opponents for these 76ers and just enjoy them for what they are: a very good young team with a great coach and a bright future.

Are they threats to win the NBA title this year? Probably not, but neither are 80 percent of the teams in the league.

Have they earned the right not to have every win graded on a curve determined by subtracting the quality of the opponent and dividing by the impact of the compressed schedule? Yes and hell yes.

It should be enough, on a February Monday, to find the Wells Fargo Center packed with fans, many clad in Lakers gear and many more bellowing "Beat LA, beat LA" as if Iverson or Erving were in the Sixers huddle. It should be enough that they did just that.

"That was an amazing win for us," Doug Collins, the aforementioned great coach, said after his team stunned the Lakers with a late rally and a 95-90 win. "To hear the fans out there chanting, 'Beat LA,' took me back to 1980, when I was here as a player. That was pretty nice to hear."

What was also pretty nice, for the Sixers and their newly reenergized fans, was that this win came very much at the expense of Kobe Bryant. On the very night he passed old teammate and nemesis Shaquille O'Neal for fifth place all-time among NBA scorers, Bryant almost single-handedly blew the Lakers' fourth-quarter lead.

He did it with desperate, off-balance, ill-advised shots. You know, the kind he normally makes at clutch time. The kind he was making in a 24-point first half that had the Lakers fans in the Center on their feet.

Now this may have just been a single off night in a long season, or it may have been something a bit more significant. Listen to Andre Iguodala, who annoyed and frustrated Bryant defensively throughout the second half.

"He exerts a lot of energy," Iguodala said of Bryant. "He's aging a little bit. Something told me it would be hard for him to keep the pace."

No one has a better feel for the bull than the matador, and Iguodala had just spent a lot of up-close time with Bryant. So if the man with five championship rings is, at 33, starting to fade, that would be awfully significant. It is more likely, though, that he simply delivered an ordinary performance on what was, for him, just an ordinary night.

And that brings us back to these Sixers and where they stand on the long journey from the middle of the pack to the front.

Bryant has spent the past 12 years at or near the front. He has been to the NBA Finals seven times, has won five times. He has been Finals MVP twice. The question isn't whether the Sixers were able to harass him into some bad shots on Feb. 6. It is whether they could do the same night after night if the calendar were flipped over to June.

"You have to be a strong-willed player to play against Kobe Bryant," Collins said. "Those kinds of players break your spirit. . . . The easiest thing to do is get so discouraged. I've seen it happen. I had Michael Jordan. I saw what he would do to guys when he would make incredible shots."

Like Jordan, Bryant has distinguished himself by making those kinds of shots in the biggest games. Also like Jordan, the time will come when Bryant can't physically do it anymore. That time does not seem to be here yet.

Many of these Sixers learned the difference between midseason and the postseason firsthand against the Miami Heat last year. They seem to have absorbed that lesson and are anxiously trying to get back again, with a better seed, to apply it. In that sense, this team feels a little bit like the Phillies when they began to realize they were a good team.

"It's basketball," said Lou Williams, who out-Kobe'd Kobe in the fourth quarter. "We all lace them up. If we play good enough basketball, we feel like we can compete with anybody. We're young. We feel like we can win games. Once the ball jumps up, it's a fifty-fifty chance to win."

The Phillies took a big step when Jimmy Rollins pronounced them "the team to beat" in the National League East, when they stopped looking to see if they could compete with the Mets or Braves. Pretty soon, other teams were measuring themselves against the Phillies.

The Sixers aren't there yet. But they are past having their wins graded on that curve. They're a good team and getting better with each confidence-building win. Are they a great team? Let's put it this way. When they are, no one will have to ask.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

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