Out of the ashes of yet another lost season, where their record at one point not so long ago stood at a dismal 18-30, the Philadelphia 76ers have played themselves right back into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, courtesy of a blistering 15-4 mark over their last 19 games, including quality wins over powerhouses like Detroit and San Antonio. This hot stretch has included their most recent 7 out of 8 streak, with their only defeat coming at the hands of the NBA's best team, the Boston Celtics. However, even that Celtic loss had a positive twist. Philadelphia watched Boston score the game's first 15 points, but refused to throw in the towel, fighting their way back to tie the score at 34, and perhaps sending a message if the teams should meet again in the postseason. Right now the Sixers hold the 6th seed, and would likely square off against either the Detroit Pistons or Orlando Magic.
The push continues tonight with a marquee game against old friend Allen Iverson and his Denver Nuggets, also pushing for a postseason berth. How odd that the schedule makers would provide such a fitting opponent for a Sixers team just one game below .500 at 33-34. And the numbers reflect how well this young squad has come together for coach Mo Cheeks. In fact, many of the players reflect back to a devastating loss to the Atlanta Hawks that dropped the Sixers to that 18-30 mark. Philly blew a 20-point lead in that game, and from all accounts it was that sickening feeling of letting one get away that led to the current chemistry that seems to be bonding this 76er team together.
Philly is 12-2 in the second game of their last 14 back-to-back games. Some of that of course is due to the fresh legs, but there are lots of young teams in the NBA and they're not getting it done like that. Right now by the way it's 41-40 Philly over Denver at the Wachovia Center. But it will always the Spectrum in my book. Was there only twice back in the post glory days. It was the mid-80s, a few years after their Moses-led championship peak, but that was still a formidable team the Sixers put out on the court. Consider that not only was Dr. J still patrolling the upper reaches of the Spectrum (albeit in much less rarefied air those last few seasons; and there was already a new Air up there in the NBA just about due to burst onto the sporting universe), but his fellow forward was none other than a very young Charles Barkley -- still in his Round Mound of Rebound phase and not quite yet the Sir Charles who ultimately took his game elsewhere. Maurice Cheeks was still Cheeks, the ultimate unselfish point guard, smooth as velvet, and one of the most efficient finishers off the break the league has ever seen.
Andrew Toney was still there as well, but some tragic knee injuries reduced him to a mere shadow of his lethal jump-shooting self at this point. It was this Philly Sixer team I watched lose to the Jack Sikma led Milwaukee Bucks sometime in late April of '87 had to be. Less than a minute left in the game, Sixers down by 2, Doc J, as he often did, bringing the ball upcourt in a crucial spot. But instead of swooping in for one last magical dunk, or even one of his patented 17-foot corner bank shots or top of the key jumpers -- which by that time had long replaced much of his free-floating gravity-defying game that shook the basketball world in the 1970s like Jimi Hendrix rocked Woodstock and Monterey in the 1960s -- here was a suddenly mortal Doctor somehow tripping over his own feet at midcourt, feebly turning the ball over, giving it back to the Bucks, deflating a rabidly eager Spectrum crowd, and sending me and Izzy Korman outside into the cruel unforgiving world. In our case it was a long train ride back to New York, but even so how could any Sixers fan hold it against the Doc? He's just fortunate he had already delivered that one shining moment when they finally swept the hated Los Angeles Lakers back to La-La Land. Which is why I don't think the home Philly crowd will do anything but salute the old A.I. in his first return to his old haunt. I'm a 76ers fan, and while I was glad to see him go last year, I have no hard feelings against Iverson. I will never boo a player for not performing or not getting it done even, as long as they're playing hard, hustling, giving it everything.
Fans know Iverson played for the Sixers for too long and too hard to hold a grudge. I'd be shocked if Iverson didn't get at least one standing O early on. All right! 65-58 Philly at the half! Iverson's got 12, but the new A.I. -- Andre Iguodola -- has 15, leading three Sixers in double figures. You never had three Sixers in double figures at the half when Iverson was here because obviously for better or worse he dominated the ball. Iverson's replacement and one of the key pieces we got back for him in the trade with the Nugs, Andre Miller, has 13 with 9 assists. That's pretty decent for a half. In fact, Miller has a sky high basketball IQ, and he can control the action like vintage Jason Kidd for long stretches. Witness his recent 7-game stretch where he had an amazing assist to turnover ratio of 49-7. Everyone was calling for the Sixers to trade Miller to a contender, dump the salary, create cap room, etc.
Well, now the Sixers are contenders, and it's really due as much to the 32-year-old Miller as to the development of his much younger teammates like Iguadola, Samuel Dalambert, and Willie Green, the shooting guard who returned from missing a few games tonight and contributed 1o points already tonight on 5-6 shooting from the floor. Boy, Sixer fans should enjoy this team. It's been a long time coming. What's great is how their no-nonsense, defense-first style has won over the Philadelphia fans in a way that's usually reserved for other sports in that crazy town. But this is what sports is all about: a team coming from absolutely nowhere. The 76ers were picked dead last not only in their division by many preseason pickers, but dead last in the Eastern conference. I know Sports Illustrated had 'em picked 15th out of 15. (Hmmm, wonder where the Knicks were picked...) And if you're last in the East, then you're worst in the entire NBA, because even house pets and alien life forms know the West is the Best.
I just get this stupid, crazy feeling that the 76ers may just be destined to making some noise come the playoffs. I don't think many teams are looking forward to their physical style. It's a young, confident, humble team that doesn't know how good it can be. They remind me in that way of another East Coast sports team that peaked at just the right time and beat the can't-lose perfect powerhouse that everyone said couldn't be beaten. Are the Philadelphia 76ers the NBA's version of the Jersey Giants? Hey, you heard it here first and probably last. Oh balls! Denver came out of the gate smoking in the second half, outscoring the Sixers 17-8 to take a 75-73 lead. That serves me right for getting ahead of myself. Gotta go...