No matter who's currently suiting up for the Spurs, it's a pretty damn rare thing to go into San Antonio and strangle the life out of them practically by the end of the first quarter. The Philadelphia 76ers set the tone last night by allowing the Spurs just 13 points through 12 minutes, building a double-digit lead that — remarkably — they never relinquished. They ended up giving up just 78 points to San Antonio on the night — tying the Pistons blowout a couple weeks ago for the lowest amount given up by a Sixers team this season and marking the third time in nine 2018 games that they held an opponent to 80 or fewer.
Simply put, the Sixers' defense has been the best in the league recently. Their defensive rating has climbed to fourth in the league, and is second best behind only Boston for the 2018 calendar year — and in the past 10 days, it's been a league-leading 94.2. They're switching more, turning the ball over less (just nine times last night, their first time in single digits all season), and shutting off teams around the basket and at the three-point line, where opponents are shooting a paltry 30 percent against them this month. It's been a dominant defensive showing that's led to the Sixers starting January 7-2, and it's been absolutely beautiful to watch.
Of course, you might notice a correlation between a Sixers player exiting the starting lineup and the Sixers' defense going into hyperdrive. When JJ Redick went down with a leg injury on Jan. 16, Sixers fans plotzed over the potential submarining of #SixersJanuary — understandable, given our seeming lack of depth on the wings and his being a lone exception to our team-wide inability to shoot from distance. Given how poorly the team had dealt with other injuries to starters over the course of the season, it seemed sure that the Sixers would have to struggle to end the month with their head above water.
But man, has the emergence of Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot made all the difference. In four 2018 games as a starter, Luwawu-Cabarrot is averaging 15 points on 53 percent shooting, and a stunning 57 percent from deep — having made more combined triples over the past seven days (15) than he had in the 55 before that (14). But the even bigger impact has been defensive: While Redick was an invaluable offensive cog for Brett Brown, on defense he lingered as a minor liability, lacking the foot speed and lateral quickness really needed to execute Brown's perimeter-switching D at the highest level.
TLC has been awesome on that end so far, and while the Sixers' first five with Redick has been one of the best in the league — outscoring opponents by a net rating of +16.7 per 100 possessions — with TLC it's been even more potent, posting an unthinkable +37.4. That's on a relatively small sample size (still just ~44 minutes), and is bound to come down some — but wow, has this new lineup mitigated the loss of Redick in a way Sixers fans would've considered 100 percent implausible while Luwawu-Cabarrot was struggling to contribute much of anything to the rotation.
Hopefully, Redick returns before TLC proves himself to be too overextended — we'll still need Redick down the stretch, and as well as the team's currently playing with Luwawu-Cabarrot at the two, it's unlikely to me that Brown would consider making it a permanent lineup change. But it's good to know the option is there for the Sixers, and potentially a solid one for the future, especially since Redick is a free agent after this season. Like Dario Saric thus far, TLC might just be one of the rotation guys who needs starters' minutes to really show what he can do.
In the meantime, the Sixers ride into a Sunday night revenge showdown against OKC with a 24-21 record — good for sixth in the East, with the conference's third-best point differential, and just a game and a half separating them and home-court advantage in the playoffs — and all the momentum you could possibly want from #SixersJanuary. Who knows what February holds for this team, but right now, they're playing like the big boys of the East and there isn't all that much that seems out of the question for them in 2018.