Spirited 76ers looking to surprise the guys in red (jerseys)


Jan 31

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They’re tough, athletic and physical, and the players are held accountable like few in the NBA, and they respond to it.

They are the best defensive team in the NBA, leading the NBA in opponent field goal percentage defense, to many the best barometer of a top defensive team.

They’re No. 2 behind Boston in defense against three point shots and tops in the league in fewest points allowed.

They’re leading the league in what many regard as the barometer for most wins, point differential, at more than 11 per game.

And, oh, what a bench. When that mob comes into the game they have an advantage over just about everyone in the NBA.

And, no they are not the Bulls.

They are the Philadelphia 76ers, whom the Bulls visit Wednesday, the surprise team in the NBA and quietly waiting in the playoff weeds to pull an upset on someone.

Doug Collins

And it’s a Sixers team with not much fear of the Bulls as Philadelphia won two of the three between the teams last season. Ranking points scored against points allowed in the league, it’s Philadelphia No. 1, Chicago No. 2 and Miami No. 3.

So while the Bulls look up, or ahead, to Miami, they also better keep their eyes all around. There Indiana, which won in Chicago last week. And the 76ers also are beginning to get some notice in the Eastern Conference as they are quietly 15-6, just two games behind the Bulls.

“Our defense has been terrific all season long,” said 76ers coach Doug Collins, the leading candidate for NBA Coach of the Year. “I’m thrilled where we are. Hopefully, we can get healthy and continue to do that. We have strength in numbers. Our guys want to compete.

“We’ve got good players,” said Collins. “We don’t have a great one. It hurts us in close games when we’re trying to get that one basket. But you can’t say if you stop so and so you stop us.”

The 76ers have generally been able to avoid the go to player ending with an unusual combination of effort driven by Collins. They have seven players averaging in double figures with shooting guard Jodie Meeks just below at 9.4. They went seven games with seven different leading scorers. Their leading scorer, Lou Williams, comes off the bench and averages 15.7, an indication of their unselfish play. Andre Iguodala leads them in assists and averages 6.6 rebounds in regularly threatening triple-doubles. They are sixth in the league in assists, just behind the Bulls.

But they are well ahead of the Bulls and rank in the top 10 in steals and limiting opponents’ assists. They absolutely squeeze teams. Orlando Monday had 51 points with about three minutes left in the game. The last three games they’ve held the opponent under 40 percent shooting and 80 points.

It’s been a terrific run for Collins, the former Bulls coach, who has burnished his credentials as perhaps the game’s foremost turnaround specialist. With little change in the roster, the 76ers have gone from 27 wins before Collins to 41-41 last season and now a comfortable lead in the Atlantic Division ahead of the Celtics and Knicks.

“We are keeping our heads above water,” said Collins. “If you look at our stats without (starting center Spencer) Hawes, what he does has been amazing for us. We’re averaging 11.5 points per game less without him. He’s such a ball friendly guy. He moves the ball well and guys cut off him and he’s great seeing the floor. We miss him offensively, and we’ve been struggling to score.”

Hawes was one of the surprises of the early season averaging almost a double-double before an Achilles strain, though he could be back for the Bulls Wednesday after missing eight games. Also, backup center Nik Vucevic also could return after missing the last five with a knee strain.

Collins said Elton Brand has been coming on stronger and played Dwight Howard mostly one on one Monday, holding him to 17 points. “EB is getting his legs,” said Collins. “For the older bigs, this season is a nightmare. You see around the league the guys with mileage, like (Kevin) Garnett. There’s not enough time to recover with the three in four, five in seven.”

It’s in rebounding and front court size where the 76ers lag behind a team like the Bulls. And, of course, without that Derrick Rose type star. The Bulls will also come in shorthanded with Luol Deng and Richard Hamilton expected to be out again.

Rose has been on a spurt the last few games, and Collins says that is a concern as in the 76ers’ two losses at home point guards — Deron Williams and Andre Miller — had big games.

Collins admits his young point guard, Jrue Holiday, has had an uneven start after a strong close to last season and playoff series against Miami. Though 76ers players find in Collins what Bulls players have in Tom Thibodeau, and the 76ers have come to embrace that with relentless play.

Typical was last week against the Wizards when Holiday started off carelessly with three poor shots and a pair of turnovers as the 76ers fell behind. Collins called time and took Holiday out.

“’Are you the guy?” Collins asked Holiday, “’Who (when I challenged you) didn’t make a turnover against Miami? Turnovers, bad shots. You’re not into it. This is a point guard driven league.’”

Holiday got the message and came back strong, helping lead the 76ers to a big win as the leading scorer along with Brand.

“I love my guys,” said Collins. “They know they’re going to get the truth from me. It’s the way you teach. You live by habits, good or bad. You hold players accountable and help them get better.”

It’s been Collins’ way for a long time, though the early stretches were rough in Chicago and Detroit.

“It’s been really good for me,” said Collins. “This hasn’t been about whether I can coach. Before I was too young and my career (in Chicago) ended prematurely. I still had a player mindset. I get fired, and Detroit I’m trying to prove myself, and in Washington there’s the dysfunction with Michael (Jordan’s return). Now I just feel good about where I am, not having to go out every night to prove myself but being able to work with the players and teach and get to know them. And help build something to make this city proud.”

Collins has fit in seamlessly in Philadelphia with his daughter and his grandkids living nearby and back where he started his NBA career. The franchise has a new owner and the city is growing excited again about basketball. And you don’t want to relax on this 76ers team.

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