11:32 am Oct. 23, 2012
The story of the Knicks' 98-90 preseason loss up in Syracuse was the play of the team they lost to, the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Knicks performed poorly, although not in a way that necessarily means anything for the regular season. Syracuse alum Carmelo Anthony, playing before an adoring crowd, shot 7-for-23; Steve Novak, the league's best three-point shooter, went 2-for-9 from long range; Tyson Chandler, the league's most accurate shooter, period, shot 2-for-5. These things aren't likely to carry over into the next preseason game, let alone the real season.
But for the 76ers, a preseason that hasn't included their best player, Andrew Bynum, who is recovering from knee problems, has been quite successful. And Monday's performance suggested that if the Sixers get a healthy Bynum, a world-class center better than any in the N.B.A. with the exception of Dwight Howard, they should be every bit the contender they were last year, if not more.
Consider that even though the Sixers stretched the Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season, they made a host of improvements to the roster. The players responsible for more than half of their minutes last year are gone; Bynum, along with veteran pickup Jason Richardson and a greater reliance on internal options will be responsible for taking the Sixers further this season.
It isn't the 5-1 preseason record that has been so impressive for the Sixers, however. It's been how they got there.
Despite playing without Bynum, a dominant interior defender, on Monday night, the Sixers held the Knicks to 38 percent shooting. Easy baskets were rare; layups were contested, and three-pointers were seldom open attempts.
Nor was this the exception, with the Sixers holding the Boston Celtics to 41 percent shooting in an 88-79 win on Sunday, and the Nets to 44 percent shooting in a 106-96 win on Friday night. All three teams shot below 30 percent from three-point range.
What make that so impressive, besides that it came against the three likeliest challengers to the Sixers for the Atlantic Division title, is that the team's makeover this summer often traded the defense that was a given last season for the offense that was utterly missing. The Sixers added a number of shooters to a team that ranked 17th in offensive efficiency last season, but third in defensive efficiency.
And yet, despite seeing that defense continue to impress under coach Doug Collins, the offense has improved. In the same three games, the Sixers shot 49.4 percent in Brooklyn, 41.3 percent in Boston and 54.2 percent against the Knicks.
Again, remember that the Sixers did all of this without Bynum to help on either end. That would be the Bynum who is an elite defender, and whose Player Efficiency Rating of 22.9 last season was the best season any center has had in the past four years, with the exception of each of Dwight Howard's last four seasons.
The preseason results don't matter. But the games can provide indications of how well a team is capable of playing once the season begins.
The Sixers are going to be a handful.