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Blue Collar Basketball Earns a Berth For Philly Boys

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The time has come to applaud the Philadelphia 76ers.

Perhaps their long-term building plan makes sense sense to you.  Perhaps (as is certainly the case with loyal reader Who), it doesn't.

For my part, generally speaking, I'm against getting overexcited simply about the idea of going to the playoffs, especially as a low seed with a team that I don't necessarily see as a long-term championship contender.  Being consistently mediocre (low seed, early exit, unimpressive draft pick) isn't all that much to write home about to begin with, and it is a cycle into which too many teams get sucked in.

But that isn't the tune to be sung in Philadelphia.  With a win in Atlanta last night, the young Sixers punched their ticket to the postseason for the first time in the post-AI era.  It isn't merely for this that they have earned our respect but for the way they achieved their berth.

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The Philadelphia 76ers have cruised into the Eastern Conference playoffs by doing everything one could ask of a basketball team: Playing balanced team basketball, working on the defensive side, crashing the glass to no end and simply playing each and every game like there is no tomorrow.

This is a blue-collar basketball team.  The Sixers don't have a single scorer averaging 20 points per game, and just three players take more than ten shots per game from the field.  Instead, five players average in double figures (led by Andre Iguodala's 19.8 points per game), and seven different players have led the team in scoring over the 28-game stretch that has turned the Sixers' season around.

As was discussed in our last evaluation of the Sixers back when this team was still in the beginning stages of heating up, the Sixers have made great strides on the defensive end and on the glass this season.  Having Reggie Evans inside has given the team some needed muscle, and as Passion and Pride's Jon Burkett tells us, Samuel Dalembert's defensive game has improved by leaps and bounds this season.  He is positioning himself better inside and no longer completely relying on leaping ability, which used to lead him into major trouble against stronger centers, which constituted just about everyone.  Now Dalembert is working hard to use technique on the floor to get himself positioned well early in plays, and it's showing as he is helping limit opposing post presences inside.  After coming in at 16th in defensive efficiency last year, the Sixers sit at eighth now.

Similarly, this team is crashing the boards like never before.  As was the case back in March, the Sixers continue to lead the league in offensive rebound rate, collecting more than 32 percent of available offensive rebounds.  This leads to lots of second chances, which means that the fact that the Sixers don't shoot the world's greatest percentage isn't a major consequence.  Their big guys inside have worn opponents down all season by pounding the glass all night along every night out, and it makes a difference when the boys in black and white are taking more shots -- and thus scoring more points -- than opponents.  Dalembert and Evans average 6.5 offensive boards per game between them, and Thaddeus Young adds nearly two more in just 20 minutes per game of playing time.  As a result of these efforts, the Sixers are also third in the league in overall rebound rate, pulling down 52 percent of possible boards.  It's a simple formula, folks: Shoot more shots, allow the opponents to take less shots, give yourself a better chance of winning basketball games.  That's what happens when you pay attention to cleaning the glass.

And for the final time, no, the Sixers' hot run hasn't simply been a product of playing in a putrid conference.  Sure, it doesn't hurt that 39-37 overall is good enough for fifth in the Eastern Conference, but don't let the conference fool you: This team hasn't simply been beating up on patsies.  Since dropping to a low-water mark of 18-30 this season, the Sixers have won an astounding 21 of 28.  Included in that run have been home wins over Washington, Dallas, Orlando, San Antonio and Denver and road wins in Phoenix, Detroit and Boston.  In a league with a large disparity between the few very good teams and a mass of mediocre-to-poor teams, having eight very quality wins in this string is fairly impressive.  The Sixers have shown fortitude on the road as well, going 9-5 away from the Wachovia Center in this stretch.

No, this team isn't a true championship contender, and yes, the doubters about their long-term future could certainly be proven right in a hurry after the season.

But in just their first full season after the departure of Allen Iverson, at a time at which the organization was expected to be in complete shambles, this much is true about the Philadelphia 76ers: They are a good basketball team.

And there is something to be said to that.

Congratulations, Philly.  Enjoy the playoff run for as long as it lasts -- and here's hoping that isn't past the Celtics' run of their own.

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