To be a member of the Philadelphia 76ers is no easy task. It means you lost your coach and had difficulty finding another.
It means you will hurt. Not necessarily emotionally, but definitely physically, and probably psychologically.
|Eric Snow is the only 76er who has started in all 40 games this season.(Getty Images)|
And it's beginning to take a toll mentally.
Inevitably, individuals attempt to take the game into their own hands, if only because there is a lack of trust. Their 91-87 home loss to the very beatable Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday night was case and point.
"We just didn't play as a team in the second half," Ayers said. "We quit sharing the basketball in the second half."
The rookie coach's lament is part and parcel of what coach Larry Brown went through for six seasons -- including 2000-01, when the 76ers won the Eastern Conference. Forget the over-reported difficulties with superstar Allen Iverson, the annual injury total was the real culprit.
Point guard Eric Snow is the only player to start all 40 games for the 18-22 Sixers. Forward Kenny Thomas is out with a sprained ankle, Iverson is playing with a very touchy knee -- which along with various other maladies, has kept him out of 12 games. Consequently, he and new high-scoring acquisition Glenn Robinson, who has missed 18 games, have hardly had a chance to create synergy. And then there is Derrick Coleman playing on one leg (when he does manage to play), and Aaron McKie's battered body, and well, it's a little difficult to keep it all straight.
For the players, in particular.
"We don't have any type of chemistry as far as offensively or defensively," said Iverson, who leads the league in both scoring and steals per game. "We don't know who's gonna play night in and night out. We can't get everybody on the floor at the same time. It's like we're snake-bitten and it's hurting.
"When you look at teams around the league, they have all their pieces together, and they have some type of chemistry. They're able to win games."
The Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Hornets are good examples. Knee injuries have kept Chris Webber of the Kings and the Hornets' Jamal Mashburn out for the entire regular season so far ... but Iverson's point is everybody else has been together to compensate.
Granted, the Sixers aren't lone rangers in this situation. The Golden State Warriors are annually a battered bunch. The New York Knicks have suffered a lot, and so have the Miami Heat. The San Antonio Spurs have for the most part, overcome injuries and the challenge for new faces. The Los Angeles Lakers currently have three of their four future Hall-of-Famers in street clothes.
But when it spreads over a period of five consecutive seasons to a team that is expected to challenge for the Atlantic Division title, inevitably the players' psyche will wear down with their bodies.
"It's always tough, but we have been giving away games lately," Snow said. "It is sort of a mindset and it is sort of experience sometimes. It's mainly just staying focused on your principles and what your team is doing."
The problem is confusion over which is the right hand and which is the left hand in their offense and defense. The mental toughness of Iverson, McKie and Snow has always allowed this team to persevere when Brown was coach.
Now that they have Brown's top assistant, Ayers, it remains to be seen if they can still maintain long enough to get healthy. Then get on a roll. As it is, they have managed to hang in the eighth and final playoff position. But even in the weak Eastern Conference, that spot is tenuous at best.
"It's just frustrating because it's a loss," Iverson said. "Regardless of if it's a close game or a blowout, it's always frustrating. A lot of us have to start pointing the finger at ourselves instead of everybody else ... and be accountable for how you play out there and what you contribute to the team."
But even then, they'd better be careful. Given the Sixers' luck, the next injury will be a sprained finger to the chest.
Setting the pace
If the rest of the Eastern Conference is expecting the Indiana Pacers to slide into a tailspin like the 11-19 finish of a year ago, we've got news for you.
Don't hold your breath.
The Pacers rolled through the weekend with victories over the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs and Eastern Conference champion Nets.
The Pacers have won 10 of their past 11 games and at 31-11, they've won more games than any other team and the 15-7 road record is also the best in the league.
In other words:
"We're for real baby," Pacers sixth man extraordinaire Al Harrington said after the victory in New Jersey. "We figure the road to the Finals is coming through Indiana this year."
A premature comment, to be sure. Nonetheless, the Pacers have taken on an entirely new look the past three weeks. Not coincidentally, it has happened upon the return of third-year point guard Jamaal Tinsley, with whom new coach Rick Carlisle has taken great pains to get acclimated to precisely the way he wants the team run.
They spent the first 30 games winning with a stifling defense that is allowing only 84.5 points a game and .426 shooting percentage, and All-Star forward Jermaine O'Neal's dominating play. But the players were growing frustrated offensively by the pace of Carlisle's controlled offense.
Now they've got Tinsley pushing the ball every chance he gets, and they are 10-2 since his activation. His first game back was a tough loss to New Jersey that completed the eighth defeat in the previous 12 games. Since then, they've been nearly unbeatable. The only blemish was an excruciating one-point overtime loss at San Antonio, and the Pacers now have another bonus with Jonathan Bender -- now fully recovered from offseason knee surgery -- bringing instant offense off the bench.
And then there was 38-year-old Reggie Miller, pouring in 28 points, including 7-of-9 from 3-point range in Friday's victory over San Antonio. He then had just nine points Saturday at New Jersey, but was vital in the defensive shutdown that allowed the Nets just 29 points in the second half.
"It sends a message ... especially in the Eastern Conference," Miller said. "Everyone says the road is going through New Jersey, but we want them to know we can come in here and win."
Lost in La-la land
While the Los Angeles Lakers still have a week until Shaquille O'Neal (strained calf) and Kobe Bryant (strained shoulder) will play and another two weeks until Karl Malone (strained knee ligament) returns, they have managed to piece together four victories over their past five games.
Sure, the 20-point loss at Sacramento was a reminder the Kings are ready and willing to meet them anytime and anyplace, but under the circumstances, what Gary Payton and Slava Medvedenko have done to keep them competitive says a lot about them and even more about coach Phil Jackson.
Lost in all of this was Jackson (800-301) becoming the fastest coach ever to win 800 games. Pat Riley (800-339) is second, Red Auerbach (800-427) is third, Jerry Sloan (800-463) is fourth and Don Nelson (800-527) is fifth.
Shots from the perimeter
- If the Detroit Pistons can beat the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night, they will tie the all-time franchise record of 13 consecutive wins. Ineffective and erratic down the stretch of games with a horribly disjointed offense, the Pistons were winning on the strength of an NBA record 38 consecutive games holding a team to less than 100 points. They have transformed from struggling to stay above .500 to being 28-13 (.683), with the fourth-best winning percentage in the league and they are just 2½ games behind the Pacers.
- The Spurs ended their three-game losing streak Saturday at Boston with a 17-point victory Sunday, as Rasho Nesterovic had a season-high 23 points, 13 rebounds and one block. The Celtics, meanwhile, lost their fourth in a row. Not coincidentally, All-Star Paul Pierce, struggling with a sprained index finger, has averaged slightly more than 16 points a game and made just 20-of-71 from the field during the losing streak ... just .282 from the field. Vin Baker returned to the C's after missing five games -- three after testing positive for alcohol per his rehabilitation agreement with the team and two while coach Jim O'Brien needed convincing he was in condition to play. Baker had 12 points and no rebounds in his first game back and no points and four rebounds in his second.
- It's been an interesting week for the Grizzlies, who have battled their way back to three games over .500 with a four-game winning streak and coach Hubie Brown secured his 48th victory as coach over the past two seasons, making him the winningest coach in franchise history. A better indication of why the Grizzlies are winning though is the return to playing condition for point guard Jason Williams, who missed 10 games with a strained back. And even in his first 10 games upon his return, he struggled with conditioning and the team had lost its continuity. But over the past five games, Williams has averaged 13.2 points, 9.6 assists and just 1.6 turnovers. The Grizzlies (21-18) are tied for ninth, just one game out of the last playoff spot in the Western Conference. Last season, they set the club record for victories: 28.
- While all eyes are on new New York Knicks coach Lenny Wilkens and his point guard Stephon Marbury, Keith Van Horn is very quietly having his best January in the NBA. Not only is he 11-of-16 from 3-point range and averaging 25.3 points during their present three-game winning streak, but he's shooting 51 percent from 3-point range and 53 percent from the field while averaging 20.6 this month. The Knicks are 8-6 since Isiah Thomas became president and 4-3 since acquiring Marbury from the Phoenix Suns.
- An interesting sidebar to the Knicks since the trade that brought Marbury andPenny Hardaway into the rotation, was how Hardaway's exit has affected young Suns shooting guard Joe Johnson. His confidence constantly being questioned before the deal with Hardaway eager to take his spot, Johnson, 22, has averaged 24.0 points as the Suns have bounced back to win three of their past four games. And he's averaged 20.1 points over the seven games since the trade. Johnson, the 6-7, 230-pounder from Arkansas, has had 20 or more points in five of the past six games, including 25 in Sunday's 96-92 come-from-behind victory over the Portland Trail Blazers. The win over the Blazers marked the third game in a row the Suns had at least three players score 20 points or more.
- And speaking of the fading Blazers, all the hoopla surrounding the Dallas Mavericks coming to town Saturday and the constantly reported packages of either Antawn Jamison or Antoine Walker and others coming to the Blazers in a deal for Rasheed Wallace amounted to nothing. Mavs general manager Donn Nelson chatted with Blazers general manager John Nash and no deal has been made. But as the Blazers' losing streak struck five Sunday, desperation is now impaling the team. Whether or not Wallace is still interested in signing a three-year, $30 million extension or ends up being traded may not be resolved by the trading deadline, but all the discussion has had a pronounced effect. They have lost nine of 10 and at 16-23, are seven games below .500 for the first time in eight years. They have dropped into a tie with Golden State for the 12th-best record in the Western Conference, just 2½ games ahead of the last-place Suns. The Blazers were 50-32 last season and have been in the playoffs 21 consecutive years -- one shy of the all-time record.
- The Cleveland Cavaliers accomplished something they hadn't managed since rookie LeBron James was four years old -- win in Salt Lake City. With the help of James' 29 points, and the dominating 32 points and 18 rebounds from Carlos Boozer, the Cavs pulled out a 102-96 overtime victory in the Delta Center. James' sprained right ankle in the fourth quarter notwithstanding, the Cavs had not won at Utah since Dec. 11, 1989 when the Jazz were still playing in the old Salt Palace.
- As if the Seattle SuperSonics haven't had a tough enough time staying consistent this season, they've had difficulties with the league charter plane service run by Champion Air. Friday night, they had a three-hour delay after leaving New York due to a mechanical difficulty and had to wait for another plane to come in. They didn't arrive in Washington, D.C., until 4 a.m. and lost by 15 to the hapless Wizards. They struggled through a similar incident going to Sacramento on Jan. 4 and lost by 31 to the Kings. Sonics owner Howard Schultz has vowed to look into the matter. Previous owner Barry Ackerley had purchased a plane for the team, but it was not part of the sale price.
- The Minnesota Timberwolves' five-game winning streak came to an abrupt halt Saturday in Houston with a surprisingly easy 19-point victory for the Rockets. Yao Ming had 22 points and 15 rebounds to lead the Rockets to their third consecutive win and he has strung together at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in all three games. That's a first in his career and moved the Rockets to within 3&$189; games of the first-place T-Wolves.
- Just when the Toronto Raptors got rookie Chris Bosh back from a four-game absence with a strained knee, they lost All-Star Vince Carter. Carter suffered a strained right quadriceps in Thursday's overtime victory over New Orleans and sat out Saturday's five-point loss to Atlanta. Bosh played against Atlanta with six points and 10 rebounds and was plenty rusty offensively. He was 2-of-7 from the field, and a disastrous 2-of-9 from the free throw line. Carter's status is day-to-day and is questionable for Monday's game at New York against the Knicks and his former coach, Wilkens.
- The quote of the week is tough to decide considering Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban again referred to his coach Don Nelson as a "drama queen" and told reporters in Dallas, "I wasn't going to give him the old vote of confidence thing because that's the kiss of death. I just told him I wasn't going to (fire him and) let him play golf in Hawaii. I wasn't going to let him get a suntan when I couldn't get one."
- But Chicago Bulls coach Scott Skiles won the battle of the quips when asked what hefty young center Eddy Curry could do to improve his rebounding. "Jump," Skiles said.