In writing about Ted Williams once, the author John Updike called the idea of a clutch player a vulgarity, the term implying that the athlete in question was not trying his hardest upon other occasions. Until recently, the Sixers, to a man, have echoed such sentiments, touting the virtues of team ball and celebrating their uniqueness in that respect among NBA teams.
But that's the rap on the Sixers, or the one that continues to stick - there is no superhero like MJ, or like Deron Williams, LeBron James or in last night's most recent example, Tony Parker. Against a guard-rich team like the Sixers, Parker scored a crowd-numbing 37 points and added eight assists, distributing them evenly over four quarters, seemingly answering every late big Sixers moment with one of his own.
"He had that ball on a string," Sixers coach Doug Collins said. "We were trying to do our best to keep him crowded and make him shoot jump shots, and we just never could get him under control."
Including last night's 100-90 loss to the Spurs, the Sixers have now been in 10 games decided by 10 or fewer points this season. They have lost six of them. In those instances, the postscript has invariably noted the lack of a superstar among their ranks, or specifically, someone to put them on his back down the stretch.
Almost to a man, the Sixers sound schizophrenic on the topic. They have won 18 games and lost eight this season without such a discernible star.
"Tell you the truth, everybody says you need that person," Turner said. "But our offense is not designed to have that go-to guy. I don't think people understand that."
Yeah, people do. But when you watch a game like last night's, the knee-jerk conclusion is that you need one.
"Lou is a guy who can be our fourth-quarter guy,'' Collins said. "Because he can get his own shot, he has the ability to get to the free-throw line. You back off of him, he's fairly shooting the three. And he can get to where he wants to get on the floor with the ball."
Ah, but as Turner noted, the two guys most often mentioned who fill that role, Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young, don't even start. Usually when they win, the Sixers beat you like piranhas eat you, little pieces at a time.
Monday night, Williams stepped up with 12 points against the Lakers in the fourth quarter, and statistically he is among the NBA's most clutch performers. But all you had to do was watch a little of last night's game to realize the abyss in equity between him and a player such as Parker. The Spurs guard, still only 29, went to the line 13 times, made 'em all. At least twice, replays showed no contact. Williams, on the other hand, received no such love, despite repeated hacks as he went to the hole. On a night in which his bobblehead was given out, his real head ultimately became a frustrated swivel, incurring a technical after strenuously complaining after no fewer than three hacks underneath the hoop were not called.
Asked afterward whether there was such a thing as building equity, Williams smiled and said, "It's rumored that that happens."
The Spurs took 47 shots in the paint and scored 54 points. The Sixers took one fewer shot in there and totaled only 38. Over their past four games - all against teams featuring established NBA stars, the Sixers are averaging 12.8 free throws, while their foes have averaged 23.3. Asked about last night's discrepancy, Collins said, "I'm going to leave that alone. Respectfully."
Apparently, the NBA has some financial disincentives for that sort of talk. It's still a star-driven league, despite David Stern's own schizophrenic positioning on that topic during a visit here last month. This rub-a-dub-dub, 10-men-in-a-tub team concept is cute for now, but it won't play well when the playoffs start in a few months.
But that's a few months, an eternity for a team still auditioning big moments on a game-by-game basis.
"I know there's still a lot of people out there who think we're the little engine that can't," Collins had said before the game. "But that's OK. We'll just keep on chugging."
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