Friday, March 2, 2018

Philadelphia turns around on two feet

It isn’t that the 76ers aren’t capable of what they gave the Cavaliers on Thursday, Philadelphia has been most of that great all season. The Cavs are slick, its excuses will be in place until this all ends, and they’ll do the good service of making a show in the losses. Cleveland will be a part of your statement game.

The Sixers, though, they weren’t sure about this until recently and for damn good reason. This is a brand new club strewn with fractures that haven’t fully filled in, straddling the worst of two wildly different front offices. Their best player is Joel Embiid, someone who won’t be doing his job right if we ever feel comfortable with how he’s running.

Their coach prances about like the one from Arch Rivals. The Cavaliers needed some defense, in their face, the Cavs were due an opponent that wasn’t going to fall for all the silly crap that disguises the eventual jab.

The Sixers were clear, from possession to possession in that 11-point win, coach Brett Brown had the right things to point out and Philly had the legs to listen. Overload here, pull back a little there, mind the transition giddy-ups and cover the three-point line – Cleveland missed 23 attempts in a game paced by crossed cross-country skis, the 108-97 conquest marked PHILA’s first win over the Cavs in a dozen tries.

The Sixers kept things slushy, and J.J. Redick pushed through whatever the hell has ailed him since sitting all those games with what is basically a broken left leg. Those pains shoot to your fingertips, with stops in the lower back and shoulders scheduled throughout the evening, Redick still swam through all that ice on his way toward 22 points on 11 shots.

This allowed the typically-skittish Robert Covington to get away with that 4-11 night, for him to concentrate on defense and not worry too much about trying to match whatever the hell Rodney Hood attempted in that basketball game on Thursday. Covington still has a bit to run, in his bid to outrace the habits of his first few seasons in Philly, but a lot can change in a spring that actually counts.

That’s what Ben Simmons has been after, this whole time.

March comes in like a lion but CBS’ smitten kitten never nipped 2016’s top overall pick, Ben wasn’t charmed by the NCAA experience and barely shook when the Sixers told him, for his health, that it was best to sit out his entire rookie season. Simmons was born in 1996, he’s followed LeBron’s career by internet hookup more than he has via appointment television, he’s aware of how this league works and what months mean the most.

Simmons played as if he’d just spent a year on the bench, on Thursday. He doled his contributions out as an extension of Brett Brown, the technical rookie was unrelenting defensively and snide everywhere else.

Few players in this league are swifter than Ben in eliminating a coach’s unremitting nightmare – that empty space between a player’s hands and an available loose ball. Simmons may not already boast patter ready for Brent Musburger to bet on, but Lord help the team that gets this kid’s brain in a seven-game playoff series in two months.

The rookie doesn’t run as a clear and obvious point forward or point guard or CFG-ROVER. He just covers and yelps and lunges and, because he won’t be 22 for months, still finds humor in things that even teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers take so seriously.   

Ben doesn’t have a position. Right or wrong, his expectations are for him and him alone to articulate, explanations are likely to come on the court.

Philadelphia isn’t used to that. It likes talkers.

For example, in case you're hazy on Barkley's value, here's how he assesses himself: "See, Maurice Cheeks is the best point guard in the league, but Magic Johnson, who's also a point guard, is the best basketball player.

That's what I consider myself, a basketball player—a guy who doesn't have to have a position. There's Magic, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler, maybe, and me. I put myself into that category."

(“Clyde Drexler, maybe.” Rather harsh and dutifully accurate, Charles.)

Philadelphia is full of surprises. The city stopped booing the Puppy Bowl marathon long enough to embrace whatever This Process was, or is, firing flaming arrows at the bow that slowly dragged Doug Collins back to the sirens that sing for him in suburban Chicago.

Sixer fans are lucky, of course, Joel Embiid makes a lot of things palatable. His presence somehow demanded patience when all Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor developed were thicker versions of the same bad habits they came to Philly with. Embiid isn’t swifter than Hakeem and his shoulders won’t remind you of Shaq’s, Joel’s heft isn’t something you involuntarily gawk at.

Good. That means he has two healthy feet to jump off. Another option to pile upon the dozens that exist over his strong shoulder, Thursday’s turnaround touch off the tip-toes of his right and left foot quieted a Cleveland that has seen quite a bit in the last 15 years.

All the Philadelphia 76ers have done this season is grow stronger and smarter. There’s little reason to expect this to stop just because Cleveland traded Isaiah Thomas away. Evolution doesn’t have to take a place in line.

THIS GIRL’S IN LOVE WITH YOU

The band takes requests!

TWO PLAYERS MET WITH THREE REFS

Only two NBA players braved the backseat long enough to meet with representatives from the Referee’s Association during the All-Star break, Andre Iguodala was expectedly in the building alongside the ubiquitous Spencer Dinwiddie. Los Angeles’ Lou Williams was supposed to show but failed to block the afternoon off, the superstars decided to let last month’s blockquotes do the kvetching for them.

That’s a drag, but what’s nearly as distressing is the presumption that this sort of embarrassment is a setback worth fretting over, as if the players weren’t going to send the ambassador over instead. The refs are lucky they didn’t get Pat Garrity, in Iguodala’s place.

Ken Berger described the outgoing scene:

Still, multiple sources told B/R that the dialogue in the meeting was productive. Among the key points discussed was the officials' use of certain gestures, such as the hand signal for a stop sign when a player begins arguing, which "players don't respond very well to," one of the people said.

The players also expressed a desire to receive better education about rules changes (so they aren't unwittingly arguing against correct calls) as well as clarification about the "respect for the game" rules implemented in 2010 to address a perception that, according to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, "at that point, things were a little bit out of control."

The two sides also made plans to meet again soon—preferably, before the end of the regular season, one person briefed on the meeting told B/R.

This is how this stuff melts. Chide LeBron for ducking and Lou Williams for refusing to come off the bench, but détente doesn’t usually begin with both heads of state in the building.

The group working from a position of strength typically acts that way, that churlish way, they’re the ones that need their arms unfolded before they can relax enough to demand, I don’t know, a streak of humanity from the NBA’s batch of robo-refs.

The NBA created these goddamn Eddie Haskells years ago, dragging them through the D-League on their way toward a career spent spitting out four allowable phrases:

1. Good morning, fellas.

2. Hand me that thing.

3. Boy, this work's hard.

4. Guys, break's over.

From the joint statement:

The meeting marks a successful first step in generating empathy and building a better relationship between NBA players and referees. Moving forward, the NBPA and NBRA plan to meet through the spring and into the summer. Both organizations also plan to meet with their respective memberships to share what was discussed in today’s meeting.

Yes. Good. Anything to get these two sides treating each other like people, again.

The current crop of referees aren’t robots, they just want to keep their job in 2018 same as they wanted to earn it back in 2007 – the worst stretches of David Stern’s most strident era. There needs to be some give, some flexibility, that accounts for the personalities in the room.

And players? Players are starting to act like dicks and they need to cut it out.

PUT IT WHERE YOU WANT IT

The band wants to play the hits!

(More to come.)