Sixers Look Strong As They Head Into Homestretch

Written By Roy Burton On Wednesday, February 23, 2011
While most of the stars in the NBA's constellation were aligned in Los Angeles this past weekend, the following was posted to Evan Turner's Twitter account on Saturday night:

"Headed to my old high school to shoot some shots."

Minutes after millions watched in awe as Blake Griffin exploded over a Kia Optima, Turner -- the Philadelphia 76ers' oft-maligned rookie swingman -- headed to the St. Joseph's High School gym in Westchester, Illinois to shoot a few hundred jumpers.

As the #2 pick in this past summer's NBA draft, Turner is the face of the Sixers' youth movement - a core of burgeoning stars who hope to lead the Sixers' franchise back to the level of success that it enjoyed in the not-too-distant past.

If Evan Turner's Twitter posts are any indication of the work that they intend to put in, the kids are going to be alright.

Very few would have said that back on November 26, when the Sixers lost to the Miami Heat 99-90, their 13th loss in their first 16 games of the season.

A lot can happen in three months, however. Since that night, they've run off two dozen victories - their 24-16 record since Black Friday is the ninth-best mark in the NBA over that stretch.

Heading into the All-Star break, the Sixers were winners in 10 of their last 14 games. Their most recent victory - a 114-106 triumph over the Houston Rockets on February 16 -- gave them 27 wins on the year, matching their total from the entire 2009-10 campaign.

With the exception of Turner and a few role players, the roster is largely the same as it was last season. With all apologies to former head coach Eddie Jordan, it's clear that the driving force behind the Sixers' improvement this year is the man who is now calling the shots.

To explain what Doug Collins has done with this team nearly defies words. Not only does his team lack a potent offensive option (Elton Brand's team-leading 15.2 PPG average currently ranks 52nd in the NBA), but they have little-to-no interior presence defensively (the Sixers rank 28th in the league in blocks at 4.11 BPG).

Even still, the Sixers have discovered the formula to knock off some of the best teams in the league, notching victories over Chicago, Utah, Atlanta, New York and San Antonio in the past several weeks.

Brand has been the steady hand guiding the ship this season, willing -- and often able -- to square off against the opposing team's most physical player. What he lacks in athletic ability, he makes up for in veteran savvy -- skills that have been honed over 11-plus NBA seasons.

As the Sixers' other elder statesman, forward Andre Iguodala has finally settled in his role on the team - a strange thought, considering that he came into the year as the Sixers' unquestioned leader.

After missing 11 games earlier this year with a right Achilles' injury, he finally appears to be fully healthy, often displaying the explosiveness that was missing from his game in the opening months of the season.

The Sixers' versatile small forward has whole-heartedly embraced his new role as the team's "point forward", directing the offense while allowing point guard Jrue Holiday to play off of the ball for extended periods.

Collins's experiment with Iguodala at the 1 has paid off in spades, culminating in a triple-double (13 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) in the February 16 win over the Rockets.

The move has also been beneficial for Holiday, who is quickly asserting himself as one of the best young point guards in the Association in just his second year in the league.

Holiday's play this season (13.8 PPG, 6.2 APG, 3.9 RPG) earned him a spot in last Friday night's Rookie Challenge and Youth Jam at the Staples Center. Under the tutelage of a former point guard in Collins, the 20-year-old Holiday is seemingly learning the nuances of the NBA game with each passing quarter.

Much the same can be said for the other young players on the team, many of whom comprise the most productive reserve unit in the league. Through the first two-thirds of the season, the Sixers' bench averaged 39.8 points per game, best in the NBA.

Lou Williams (13.8 PPG) and Thaddeus Young (12.1 PPG, 54.2% FG) lead the second unit, but perhaps the most important reserve is Turner, who has experienced his fair share of growing pains during his first year in the NBA.

It almost seems that as Turner goes, so go the Sixers. Mere weeks into his rookie campaign, his confidence waned as his jumper wasn't as reliable as it was in college. He struggled once he learned that he couldn't attack the basket with the same ferocity that he did while playing at Ohio State.

After months of working on improvements to his game, Turner's confidence level is far higher than it was earlier this season. Coincidentally -- or not -- the Sixers find themselves in a much better place than they were back in November.

That "better place" leaves them firmly entrenched in the Eastern Conference playoff race. With a very favorable schedule down the stretch (15 of their final 26 games are at the Wells Fargo Center), the 6th-seed is still a distinct possibility for the Sixers, despite the fact that the New York Knicks acquired former Nuggets' forward Carmelo Anthony late Monday evening.

While most of the roster lacks playoff experience, the players who do have it -- Iguodala, Brand, Young, Williams, etc. -- are playing well enough to make up for the young guys and should be able to carry them through the rough patches when that time comes.

The kids are going to be alright.

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