By Michael Tillery

OK, it’s over.

Anthony Gilbert and I walked through the Detroit locker room pregame and knew the outcome before the game even started. Rasheed Wallace, who played the DJ, was bangin’ Biggie’s “Somebody’s Gotta Die” off Life After Death, and to say it seemed apropos would be absurd and utterly ridiculous.

Straight Philadelphia 76er murda music.

Oh oh. I thought to myself.

The look in Chauncey Billups face is something I’ll never forget. Everyone was loose–even when Philly basketball legend/historian/mentor/quote machine/pop Sonny Hill came strolling through for his usual chat with Roscoe. As his teammates cracked endearing jokes on Wallace, who looked every bit of Wilt’s Grandson because he looked so Philly, Sheed paid them no mind and listened intently to Mr. Hill’s words. Sonny seems to have a special relationship with at least one player on every team and the respect he gets from those players is as impressive as it is unspoken.

We chilled out a little and nodded our heads to the beat of Kick In the Door and wondered who actually was going to talk pre-game. Chauncey began to point around the room: “This goes out to you…This goes out to you and you and you and you and you…”

He was pointing to his teammates but you damn sure knew he was hypothetically pointing to the home team.

I looked to AG and simply said, “The Sixers are in trouble.”

He agreed.

So we hit up Lindsey Hunter who was one of the Sheed/Sonny Hill comedians because he seemed to be having a good time.

We were talking about guards and I popped the question… “Who is the best guard ever?”

“Best guard? Michael Jordan? I mean…is he considered a guard (like I just asked the craziest question and we all laugh)? I’m saying…what are you asking me?

AG: “You could argue that talent wise it’s Kobe Bryant.”

LH: “Michael Jordan, then Kobe. Michael Jordan and then everybody else.”

MT: Could you compare Kobe’s talent to Michael’s yet?

LH: “Yeah. Oh yeah. The thing about it…I played with Kobe so I saw how much he wanted to emulate Michael Jordan. Everything he did was to be like Michael. No doubt is as talented and all that stuff but it was just something Michael has that these guys don’t have. It was a God gift. I played with Michael on the playground. I played against him in the league and I’m just telling you…as good as these guys are they pale in comparison. Then you look at the rule changes that came into play after Mike left. Had Michael Jordan played in his prime during these rule changes, he could have probably averaged 50. The no touch rule? You saw how New York beat on Mike. Now you can’t touch or hold or do all that stuff. Put him here in his prime and you can talk about reconstructing the record book.”

Damn. He’s got a point there. The beauty of talking to professionals is that they give it to you real–if you engage them.

So we decided to head over to the Philly side and get a sense of the pulse in their locker room.

It was peace, but the biggest difference is there wasn’t a lot of talking to us or each other. They definitely had their game faces on. Andre Miller was doing his usual–watching film, Andre Iguodala was in the weight room and Lou Williams had his earphones on–head noddin’–getting mentally ready.

Definitely not the same. I don’t know if the Sixers really know what they are about to get into.

Detroit’s team is like a tempered steel combination lock in that you aren’t getting past it without breaking the code and tonight the Sixers just didn’t have it.

The Pistons seemed like they hit every single shot. They shot 60% for the first half and picked it up to 68% by the end of the third quarter.

Mo Cheeks tried everything he could. The Pistons couldn’t miss if they tried. Chauncey Billups directed traffic masterfully. He found the mismatch before it developed and made sure the player with the advantage got the ball in his spot.

Sheed’s pulling up for threes from the gate? Rip shoots…damn…swiccup….Tayshaun…from the wing..bottom.

BOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!

The fans here have been supportive the entire season and to hear them cascade boos down on a team that has fought hard the entire season was very disappointing. There were only 14,130 in attendance (there was also a Phillies game). The culture of the team and the way the organization relates to the public needs to change here right now why the fire is hot.

The Sixers were aggressive enough, they just didn’t get it done. When you hear announcers say there’s a lid on the basket..that’s real rap.

But, like Roscoe says all the time when he is forced to talk to the press. “Both teams played hard.”

It wasn’t like the Sixers weren’t fighting and scratching and clawing and diving–because they were.

They were just beaten by a better team. It’s as simple as that. There was a switch that was turned on at halftime of Game 4 that was never turned off and the young Sixers got stuck with the electric bill.

Mo Cheeks: “I talked about Sunday night in the second half. That is when the series turned. You can’t underestimate the ability to have experience in those situations and to have experienced played to be able to change a bleak situation into a positive one. They took advantage of being able to take advantage of coming back after a 10 point deficit and being able to change this series around. They took advantage of that and steamrolled from there. They haven’t relinquished that since then.

I wanted to see if Cheeks would buy into my question and tell us what he’d learned the most as a coach this season:

Cheeks: “Well it’s not for myself. I’m learning everyday. There’s no question about that. It’s like a guy (fan) was yelling out “It’s time to sit down.” No it is never time. I’ve always been that way. I’ve been up and down forty as a player and down forty as a coach and I’ve never given up. I try to stress that to my players. I don’t think they gave up. I try to teach that to a player that whatever situation your in you can always overcome it.”

Cheeks has had this team ready to play ever since the all star break but they didn’t come out loose tonight and it showed early and often.

Taking another page from the Sheed quote book, I can safely say the Sixers played with the booty holes tight.

They were down 10 to nothing and 22-5 at one point in the first quarter.

It was a wrap from there.

One of the most determining factors to Detroit’s series victory was the defensive pressure seemingly buried on Dre Iguodala.

Dre: “I was trying to be more aggressive but at the same time not forcing anything. Obviously I didn’t get as many shots as I wanted to get up. i wanted to come out firing. They just did a good job of really pressuring us and making us turn the ball over. They did a good job defensively.”

Understatement of the year Dre.

Dre: “They made some tough shots. They were just clicking on all corners. And I think we can learn a lot from them. That’s the one thing that I have been trying to get the guys to see is how they play. All five guys contribute on both ends of the court.”

This is the key for the Pistons. Everyone does their job every single time down the court. They don’t want you taking anything from them. If you do you will pay with reticent and Sheed not so reticent militaristic destructive execution. They also have been there.

Flip Saunders: “One thing about our players, we have been through close out situations, so we know a little bit of what it takes. They know you can’t beat yourself. You need to show the other team that your not here just to go through the motions and that’s what we did. We executed at both ends offensively in the half court, but we ran through defensively. When we are active defensively, Maxy (Maxiell) was very aggressive defensively for us on pick and rolls…Rasheed was good…everybody was good. We kept them out of the middle most of the time. I don’t think they had a bucket in the first five and a half minutes. I think it was mostly just free throws. We contested shots and we rebounded and we were OK.

Just OK Flip? Damn your team ripped the soul out of the Wachovia Center. The arena was at 50% capacity at halftime.

It was so bad that the usually athletic and entertaining Sixers dancers missed on four out of five dunks in the third quarter. One dancer comes down in a split after coming down from a dunk, this time she missed (the dunk)…ouch.

You could see the dejection on the Sixers faces after the game and it’s perfectly understandable given they lost such a big game so badly at home.

Andre Miller: “It was difficult because it was on our home court. We’ve had a good year and everybody played well. We were a half away from going up 3-1. It doesn’t say anything about the effort and energy that everybody put in this year. The coaching staff and the players. The Pistons are a smart veteran team. Everybody knows their role. They know what they are doing on pressure situations and they know who to go to when that person has it going. It’s difficult to rebound from that. They got into a rhythm. Chauncey picked it up and got it moving.

You just want to look back on how well each player got, especially the young guys who made big strides (Thaddeus Young, Lou Williams). They were a big part of our success as far as the second part of our season. It takes a lot of effort to come out and beat a veteran team like that. You live and learn and everybody is going to rebuild and look back to see what we can do better next year. I do look at this season as a success. No one expected us to make it to the playoffs or even win 30 games probably. We exceeded that. The Pistons are probably one of the top five best teams in the league and we played well with them.”

A player who energized the Sixers was Lou Williams. He’s been the same cat all year in that he goes hard whether his shot is falling or not.

MT: Do you see yourself as being one of the keys to success here?

LW: “I hope so. I started my career here. Every player wants to finish where they started. I look forward to being here for a number of years. I really like the core of guys here. Our management and the coaching staff with us are a great fit for what we are trying to do so I look forward to the future.”

MT: When you all were down by so much did that time give you a chance to reflect on the season?

LW: “Well we were still trying to win, but like you said you’ve said it was a great season. We fought hard and can’t really hang our heads because a lot of people had us down and out a long time ago. To be able to take a team like Detroit to six games with an opportunity to win? I think we’ve accomplished a lot.”

MT: When you met at half court, what was that moment? Did it galvanize the team and be something you all might look back on years from now?

LW: “Mike it was tough for me. It was tough for me. I know how everybody worked this year. There are so many stories in this locker room. This is the first time I’ve played a complete season. Having Jason (Smith) and the young guys playing the way they stepped up. Andre and his contract year…the way everybody made a big deal about him turning down money and how he came in. Andre Miller having the year he did. Unfortunately it had to come to an end. We look forward to the fans sticking with us no matter what. It doesn’t matter if we are down or we are up. That’s what we are looking for. We have to earn their respect and it starts this summer. That’s what we are going to try to do.”

One of my boys in the locker room was Jason Smith. Dude is as chill as they come…like he’s know you forever.

As I walked up to him, all I said was yeah, so yeah…

JS: “Yeah…it was a learning experience. Coming in. Get traded right at the draft. Came in and had a great summer league. I had an OK start. Got some minutes. Played hard. We had some droughts during the year. We had things go wrong and we got it back in the middle. It was a great learning experience from Sam’s point of view and Reggie’s point of view, K.O. (Kevin Ollie), Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams….Andre Miller didn’t really say a word (we laugh), but this is a great group of guys. From all the horror stories you hear about people not being nice in the NBA this team is exceptional. I just never dreamed of it being over. It was a long season.”

One more guy I have to add is Kevin Ollie. His contract is up and he most likely has played his last game as a Sixer. He was here in 2001 when Ivey stepped over Lue and Dikembe wagged his finger on everyone except the coach who wanted to do it the right way.

KO: “At half court we were just giving thanks to the Lord. Without him we wouldn’t be here. That’s how we’ve been doing the whole year–giving him the glory. Win or lose, we are right there in the middle. It just shows the character of these guys and our spirituality side. I brought it in one more time and prayed for the fellas and we just congratulated each other for hanging in there. We have a fortitude and perseverance because it was tough.”

MT: Talking to all the players all year long they all referenced your leadership–something that the fans don’t know. This team is young. Speak on their development. What did you try to give the players to get them to where they are now.

KO: “I just try to live my life the correct way Mike. I don’t have to do to much with these dudes. There’s no one full of themselves and they are willing to learn. I’ve been around some young kids that don’t listen, don’t wanna learn or get better or work hard. I just played my role of being a mentor and them coming to me for any advice they need.”

MT: I know you are probably happy for Rip (fellow UConn products with Ray Allen as well. I noticed this season that UConn has a camaraderie that is unique…definitely a brotherhood. Before the game KO had extra tickets he gave to Rip).

KO: “Yeah that’s my man. I’m gonna be torn though if they meet the Celtics. I don’t know who I’m gonna root for Mike. I think I gotta go for Ray Ray. You know. He was with me for two years there. It’s gonna be tough though. I can’t root against none of them.”

MT: What’s in your future as a player?

KO: “Just get ready for the summer and hopefully get a couple more years out of this body. My contract is up so I’ll be a free agent so I’ll see what I have on July 1st (free agent signing period starts) and hopefully teams come into play and I’ll get a couple more years out this old body.”

Yeah so that’s it. It was nice to see the team I grew up with turn the corner and begin a new era of Philly excitement. It’s all good here and it will be interesting to see how the team dynamic changes with the draft and free agency.

To a man, they all tipped their hat to the Pistons but deep deep down there’s a South Philly fire brewing…