Waiting for the EL on a Friday is something different. People’s personalities are on display in full flavor, adding to the excitement waiting to happen.
This one cat in particular set the mood right. I knew what was playing on his iPod because as he rapped the lyrics loud enough for those in Mt. Airy to hear. The track happened to be Once Again It’s On by State Property—more specifically, Hov and Beans. I thought to myself, It’s cool, he ain’t hurting anybody. But what he did was giving the night hype. Yeah, the hype where I knew this night would be right.
This was a night I circled because Baron Davis, Al Thornton and the Los Angeles Clippers were coming into town. This would be the first night Elton played against his former team—and the coach who thought Elton bounced on him without so much of a word.
Out in Vegas this past summer, I ran into Baron at a charity event mere days after the Sixers signed Elton Brand. Baron is usually chill—he’s one to engage—so I figured he would give me something fresh to take home, coinciding with the send-off piece I was writing on USA Basketball.
Of course, I was mistaken. Baron wanted no part of any conversation because the player he thought would he would be playing with just transported to the other side of the country like he walked through a Star Gate. Baron was hot, and he let me know. As soon as I posed the question about Elton, he told me he was done talking. I knew I had to talk to him possibly twice this season, so I made sure we were cool with each other later on.
All of this led to last night.
When Elton came into town with a smile all fresh and so clean, one had to wonder if he made the right decision. As another writer and I walked around looking for anyone relevant to speak to pregame, up walks Elton and of course I ask him about playing against Baron, if they’ve talked since and Elton, as usual was diplomatic: “Baron is a great player. He’s the focal point of their offense, so we definitely have to stop him. They come into town off a win and we are trying to get back to .500, so it’s imperative we get this win. We’ve talked through text messages a couple times, but that’s it.”
OK, nothing there because Elton was ushered off by Sixers PR—rightfully so, because we basically attacked Elton in the tunnel leading to the locker room after warm ups.
Hmm, who’s next? Ah, Mike Dunleavy.
The coaches do their pregame pressers about an hour and a half before the game and of course the media here wanted to get to the Clipper head coach just to see what he had to say about no. 42. It added to the atmosphere that Dunleavy chose to do his on the visitor’s bench. Yeah everyone wanted something juicy because this is Philly, and the look of anxiety on coach’s face showed he was not comfortable in this moment.
The trade for Z-Bo that sent Cuttino Mobley to the Knicks just went down as well, so Mike was at our mercy. You’d think it was the media’s birthday or something and coach had to blow out the candles. He commented on getting the low post presence the Clippers needed to compliment Chris Kaman and Marcus Camby, the business of the NBA, the success the Clips had in the pick-and-roll when Elton was there and what a team initially loses when a player is traded. I asked him in his experience as a player and coach, how long it takes for a team to get their swag back after a trade and coach was honest: “I don’t know. It really depends on the player. Veteran players sometimes make it seamless. Obviously in Denver, Chauncey Billups did it pretty easily.”
Then someone asked if he was going to talk to Elton. That anxiety reappeared, but he gave a chill response: “I’m more than happy to talk to Elton any day, any time. It’s never been an issue.” Someone else pressed and asked if he thought Elton was going to speak to him and you could tell he was getting sick of these questions. “I don’t know. Look, I don’t necessarily get the questions along these lines. There’s absolutely no animosity between me and Elton Brand. No hard feelings. Elton was a great player for me. Loved him. Terrific. The only thing I have said is that I never understood why I never heard from him about his decision not to come back to us, but other than that, we had a great five years together.”
So I asked if he thought Elton’s decision was strictly business.
“Yeah. There’s no grudge from my standpoint period but if he called me and said, ‘Coach I told you I was coming back, but I think a situation came up that’s better for my family. I’ma move on.’ (I would have said) ‘Hey, I’m sorry to hear it, but good luck.’”
Another dimension to this night is that Andre Miller played with the Clippers and Brand in 2002-03.
SLAM: Andre, I’m sure everyone has already asked you, but what’s going through your head?
Andre Miller: This will be cool. I’m looking forward to it.
SLAM: Is it going to take a three- to four-game winning streak for this team to gather the cohesiveness needed to get past this newness and really do some damage?
AM: We are trying. The opportunity is there so we just have to take advantage.
SLAM: I spoke to Aaron (assistant coach McKie) and Elton and wondered even in a loss (Minnesota the other night) are you learning anything more about yourselves?
AM: Yeah, we are learning, but there are games where you play hard and you got to do the right thing to take advantage of a win. We didn’t do that so, you learn something at the same time but of course you want to win.
SLAM: Is it about the young guys fitting with the veterans holding this team back?
AM: I don’t think it’s a matter of us being held back. It’s just some things take time you know to get it together. Teaching takes awhile—especially with younger guys—so you can’t use that as a crutch so you go out there, play basketball and hopefully everything will come together.
The development in Thad Young’s game is almost moving faster than time. You hear all the time about guys getting better by the moment or by the game or the season or whatever, but this is something unique. I wish you all could see just how good this kid is becoming. Very much looking forward to seeing him go up against another second year player, Al Thornton.
SLAM: So this is a big game?
Thaddeus Young: Yeah, this is Elton’s first game against his former team, so it’s definitely a big game for him, but we definitely are taking it as a regular game.
SLAM: Baron is sick with the ball, what’s your responsibility helping out?
TY: He’s definitely a great player. We just got to try to contain him. Trap and match and try to keep the ball out of his hands for every possession. We know that’s not going to happen but he’s definitely going to give it up some.
SLAM: I talked to Beasley the other night in DC and he said their class is better than your class…
TY: No! (Shaking his head furiously with a smile) No! Our class is doing big things. His class has one or two player that doing something. We have at least four or five. Beasley is my guy though. He’s definitely my guy.
SLAM: While I have you here, what’s going on with your boy (Anthony Morrow) from Georgia Tech right now? He’s filling it up!
TY: Ay…I’ve been saying if you don’t watch him, he’s going to get off.
SLAM: Why wasn’t he drafted?
TY: I-have-no-idea. He’s a great shooter. He really worked hard at that and he’s so passionate about the game that I always knew he was going to be good.
SLAM: Coach Hewitt must be poking out his chest because of you and him.
TY: I talked to him and he’s definitely proud of the progress Anthony and I have made.
So back over to the Clippers locker room to see if anyone does pregame and Chris Kaman is sitting there chillin’. Seems like he’s eager to get out there and put in work.
I don’t know why cats sleep on Chris because he has sick skills around the basket and will double-double your stat sheet daily.
SLAM: So this trade…
Chris Kaman: I’m still in shock we got rid of Cat (Mobley). It’s just weird for me right now. Surreal moment. Sorry it didn’t work out, but we get Zach and he obviously knows how to play. He rebounds and scores. He’ll bring another dimension to our team. Time will tell. Don’t take it personal when you are traded.
SLAM: Is this sort of an Elton Brand get back for the team?”
CK: Well, it’s hard to replace a guy like Elton. Zach is probably one of the guys closest to be able to do that. He can shoot outside a little bit like Elton and play inside. He also shoots threes and mixes it up pretty well. We’re struggling to win games right now, so I guess we had to make a move.
I leave the locker room and take my seat in press row and wait for the game to begin. The girl singing the anthem has some problems and the crowd grumbles, but at least she got up there and tried.
The Sixers get out on the break early and have like 26 dunks in the first five minutes. They go up by double digits mainly because of defensive pressure brought on by Sammy and Elton helping out.
Al Thornton and Thaddeus Young are going at it. I know how good Thad is, but Thornton’s turnaround is bananas. He has a shot to be special. Thad has long arms and Thornton is still dropping bottoms along the baseline—spinning left and right to fade. Thad comes down a couple of times and does the same to Al but just a little deeper under the basket. He mixes in a couple of put back dunks and a three. There’s something to this matchup. Both are into this like it really means something.
Eric Gordon is getting substantial minutes and a couple of us in the press are shocked he’s only averaging three points. He comes in firing and misses badly on a jumper from the top of the key. Baron is scoring at will but unselfishly is making sure everyone else is involved. Thornton throws down a couple of nice dunks off the break, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to be the Clips’ night.
The Clippers second team comes in and changes the style. No one on the Sixers bench besides Marreese Speights contributes anything and the Clippers close the gap and actually go up a couple of points. There’s this dude adjacent to where we are sitting yelling like he’s at an Eagles game in late December. You could hear him at the other end of the building if you tried.
The game ebbs and flows. The Sixers look listless and out of sync. The Clippers want it more, and go up by as much as six until late in the fourth quarter happens…
Baron Davis, who ended up with 18 and 6 dimes, hits a couple of deep fade away jumpers along the baseline off isolation over Miller. The lead hovers around five or six until the Sixers begin to show some energy blocking a couple of shots, getting into the passing lanes and shooting out on the break. Andre Iguodala had a season-high in assists with 12 and was four boards shy of a triple-double. He’s playing within himself lately. He’s got a lot of pressure to perform and tonight he filled the Pippen role nicely. If he gets an early dunk he’s almost always into the game.
With a minute left, the Sixers are down four, and Miller hits one of two at the line. Boom hits one of two as well and then those prophetic words spoken early by Andre Miller come to the fore. With the crowd waiting for something, Miller hits a shocking three that puts the Sixers down one. Gordon goes to the hole strong, becomes one of Brand’s six block victims, Iguodala gathers the loose ball, gets out on the break, almost loses the handle and somehow tips the ball to with his off hand to Brand who hits a 10-foot baseline shot with 58 seconds left to put the Sixers up one.
Energy. I thought and that Elton hitting that shot in front of Dunleavy is almost too good to be true. Baron gets doubled, dishes off and the rock gets turned over. Elton fumbles the ball a couple of times and misses badly on a shot late in the shot clock.
One more chance for the Clippers.
Baron gets doubled again but still manages to get up a shot late, there’s a mad scramble, the Clips fail on a couple of put-backs and the Sixers win 89-88.
In the post game press conference, Cheeks seems relieved the Sixers got out of there with a win. He is definitely a player’s coach, and it’s admirable the way he defends his team. I spoke up about the lack of energy because no one else would, and Mo defended his team like most coaches would:
“You can get deflated. You are out there playing defense, playing defense and they get out on a fast break and get out and run. It can deflate you a little bit. I thought our guys hung in there. Like I said earlier, two minutes and some change left the energy wasn’t there at that time. We come out of the time out, we get a steal and the energy kicks in. If you are going out there…I don’t know how many of you played it doesn’t look like a lot of you played (We all laugh. Coach got jokes but in this case he’s right. I let my kids do the playing now), but if you played and you make a stop here and somebody gets a steal there, it can deflate you. You have to take that in consideration.”
“What I meant coach was a sense of urgency.”
“Yeah at that time. Certainly you want energy every time on the court, but we hung in there and got out and Elton basically hits the game winner.”
I understand Cheeks’ thinking. He got a win and that’s his job. He doesn’t care if they win pretty or pretty ugly, as long as they win. That’s what he’s there for as a coach, and tonight the Sixers pulled it out.
One last stop into the Clippers’ locker room to hit up Thornton, Gordon and Boom Dizzle. First up was Thornton who ended with 22 points and 9 rips.
SLAM: It seemed like you and Thad were going at it. Was it something about being in the same stage of your career, some might say you have similar games. Seems like there was some fire going on.
Al Thornton: (Jokes) Man, Thad can’t check me man! Nah, me and Thad are cool. When we get out there, it’s all competitive. We both played hard and we love the game.
SLAM: You are the two guys everyone has began to speak of besides Durant. It just seemed like something extra going on out there tonight.
AT: I don’t think so. I take a challenge from anybody so…
SLAM: Where did you develop that turnaround J? It’s almost Jordanesque.
AT: That’s something I’ve developed over the years during my college career. Thad is a pretty good defender so I had to teach the little young boy something. He was trying to get up in my grill like that! (By this time, we are all laughing loudly)
SLAM: You are one of those players who potentially could be that super star down the line. How you going to get there?
AT: You know, I’ve thought about that. I’m just trying to develop. I got to keep learning. I got to get better defensively to become that lock-down guy. I think my offensive game is there, but uh…I really want to stand out because of my defense and put it all together.
SLAM: We all thought here that you were going to be the guy picked until we heard Thad’s name.
AT: I know that. Every time I come here, people ask me that. To be honest with you, I thought I was coming here too. Man, it is what it is. I’m excited to be in L.A. I’m happy right now, so that’s their loss.
SLAM: Did you come out tonight thinking you didn’t have anything to lose because you didn’t have all your players? What goes into the mindset of a player when his team trades on that night?
AT: You know what? It was a somber feeling in here. Those cats thought they were going to be here.
SLAM: They are from here!
AT: Yeah exactly, so that was a weird feeling. I know players get traded in the summer time, but not so much during the season (this early). I looked at it like the young guys just have to step up and get the win.
SLAM: As a young player, are you getting used to the business side of the NBA?
AT: Yeah, I’m still getting used to it. It’s a harsh reality, man.
SLAM: Two guys in this locker room from this class and the class of last year. Mike Beasley is saying that his class is better…
AT: C’mon, man! Be real, man. I don’t want to hear that, man. The proof is in the pudding. I’m not hearing that.”
Eric Gordon, who had 8 points, smiles but doesn’t overstep his rookie status so all can hear it. The Mark Jackson look alike—down to the head—is a great kid. I was impressed with his intelligence and also his mannerisms. You could see he was raised right.
SLAM: So what you got to say about this young fella?
Eric Gordon: Our class is deeper. Our class is pretty good. You have a lot of guys who are the leading scorers on their teams. The majority of the first-rounders in our class are playing.
SLAM: You still looking for your comfort on the floor, Eric?
EG: Yeah, we are trying to get the chemistry down with out team. We got a lot of new players and also another new guy with the trade that just went down. Offensively, we are going to get it all together. I like to contribute with rebounds and assists while also playing good defensively.
SLAM: When a game like this happens, is there something extra you want to prove?
EG: Yeah, I always want to bring something extra. Now I’m just getting used to the game. I’m twelve games in. There’s a lot more to go and a lot of opportunity to improve. Tonight was tough but I’m constantly learning and adding stuff to my game. You got to just go along with the ride.
SLAM: Baron, how you been man? Everything good?
Baron Davis: Yeah I’ve been good.
SLAM: First, I want to talk about tonight. What happened at the end?
BD: Tried to find a shot. Tried to get to the rim. Tried to make a play and the shot just didn’t fall.
SLAM: What happens in that case where you know the double is coming. Being the lead guard and the main facilitator of the offense, speak about the mental progression as the situation materializes.
BD: Try to get the best shot available. When you are down one, try to get shot and get a play on the rim as well. All I was looking for was to get the strength to get a shot up.
SLAM: Individual personal responsibilities after a trade. What’s the right now and reaction to the future?
BD: Being in this League for so long, you get used to players getting traded. Being traded before, you just adapt to a different environment and situation.
SLAM: The last election.
BD: (Giddy) Man, it was great! It was great. I voted. I campaigned.
SLAM: Those who don’t know, you were a history major at UCLA. What are you going to do with that?
BD: I didn’t finish, but I’ll figure something out when I do finish and I plan on finishing before I’m done playing.
SLAM: You come in here against the guy you thought was going to play with you. To get back to that level of respectability both personally and professionally, what has to happen with this team?
BD: Each and every night we have to establish an attitude and a way to play. We all need an identity on this team. First and foremost, we have to play hard and play defense. Defensive concentration is what’s going to make us a better team.
SLAM: You are that guy. What do you say or do to set an example?
BD: You just try to motivate guys and get them in the right position. We are a work in progress. I thought tonight we let one slip away, but we are playing better basketball. We are staying in games and giving ourselves a chance to win like we did tonight.