by Michael Tillery

Since Allen Iverson left last season, the Sixers have been the Philly version of New York’s not so finest. In a town known to boo in 3rd Bass, it was all bad here. Billy King was considered a joke by the fans and media, the iconic Mo Cheeks’ job status barely had a pulse and there was doubt if Andre Iguodala could do the damn thing and become a superstar. In my Sad State of the Sixers piece, I tried to give everyone not in Philly a sense of just how bad this team was and most likely would remain.

Then Ed Stefanski took a drive down 95 and gave the organization a surge of something positive and surprised the hell out of Philly fans. I haven’t quite figured out if the fanatics here are straight up a-holes or fans who really care about the teams who occupy the Philly space, but they are changing the dynamic of their personality like no other time before. They are very supportive of the Sixers. They are giving standing ovations after each quarter. Reggie Evans is the cult hero. He presses after Sixer makes and gets after loose balls with a hustle reminiscent of Dennis Rodman. He’s a big part of their recent success.

This turnaround is as remarkable a story as ever for this town and the young fellas make sure the crowd stays fired up until the end with numerous highly athletic break away dunks.

Since February 5, the Sixers have the second best record in the NBA at 15-4 (Houston 20-0). They’ve smashed teams they were supposed to beat up on and at least were ride or die when going up against the best. One of those examples was the loss to Boston on March 10th. In 50 Wins Ain’t Shhhh!, I asked Cheeks what he would say to his young squad to get a big win and he said this…

“As time moves on, they’ll play in more big games like this. It’s nothing you can say like you gotta do this or you gotta do that. You have to do the same things you’ve been doing every game and don’t change anything different. This was a big game for us–it wasn’t a big game for Boston. They get everybody’s big game because they’re so good and everyone wants to beat them. As time moves on, they’ll (younger Sixers) know how to play in these type games.”

Since then, the Sixers have run off road wins in Detroit and Chicago and held on at home Saturday night against the defending champion, San Antonio Spurs 103-96. Andre Miller was unstoppable—scoring 32—and Andre Iguodala put up 25 to lead Philly. These last three wins have been very impressive. You can sense the hunger and determination by the beast look in the younger player’s eyes. They want the Playoffs and it doesn’t matter who the opponent is.
After the Spurs win, I asked Cheeks what he was most proud of as his team gets closer and closer to .500. “We were way down at one point,” he said. “I don’t exactly know the numbers of our record was, but we were way down. The one thing I kept saying to you guys is that our players continued to play. When you work as hard as we’ve been working, you start to get some reward and feel good about yourself. That’s what I’m most proud of…that our players continued to play when we were down. When we started to have some success, they play even harder now.”

Now, the city is in a buzz as fans anticipate Allen Iverson returning to Philadelphia on Wednesday night for the first time since the trade. And seeing how the Nuggets hung 162 on a young Seattle team the other day, we’ll see how the young Philly players respond to what will be a huge game emotionally.

MT: What are you most looking forward to on Wednesday?

Kevin Ollie: Just seeing A.I. back and seeing the crowd give him a standing ovation because he deserves it. He’s done a lot for the fans here and the franchise. He’s an icon here. I just want to see the welcome from the fans.

MT: What’s going on with the franchise?

KO: We are just playing hard. Our young guys are playing aggressive and mixing with our older guys. It feels good. We are definitely realizing that Mo’s preaching can pay off.

MT: Obviously, the way you played tonight you wanted to come out and take it to the Spurs. How hungry is this team right now?

Andre Miller: We are real hungry. Everyone is contributing. We are just in a really good rhythm right now. Everyone is coming out and stepping up.

MT: Are you able to relax knowing the trade deadline is long gone in the rear view mirror? It seems like when you let it go early in games, this team is money.

AM: I’m not relaxing for nothing. Nothing is guaranteed.

MT: Are you becoming closer with your teammates?

AM: I think we have a rhythm on the floor. We are getting to understand each other out there and that’s real important.

MT: Can you taste the playoffs now? Can you smell it?

AM: (Very quickly) Nope. Not yet. Nothing is guaranteed. Smellin’ it?

MT: Smellin’ it?

AM: Won’t smell it for certain until we get there.

MT: Comment on Mo’s direction. What are you learning from him? This is definitely a turning point in your career and the franchise as well.

AM: He is letting the guys go and proving themselves. It’s hard for a coach to coach a bunch of young guys and they’ve done a good job. It’s give and take. He knows when to pull the strings and he knows when to let them go.

MT: I know you are looking forward to Wednesday.

AM: It will be fun.
MT: You are bringing energy back to this team that I personally haven’t witnessed in a long time. The crowd is very supportive. The team is scrapping for every loose ball, so there’s not a lot of booing. Where is this coming from? Did it come from up top or is this something you committed to on your own?

Rodney Carney: We came together as a team on our own at the beginning of the season in training camp. We made a vow to ourselves that this wasn’t going to be a subpar season. We’re going to give it our all and bring energy on the court. It also helped us a lot when Ed Stefanski came. He helped a lot because he managed more of a running team—which played to our strengths. The fast break dunks and all the highlights brought a lot of energy. We are running plays to our advantage. My athleticism…Andre Miller, Iguodala we want to get out there and run. We are not going to give up. We try to play the best as we can.

MT: I’m going to be straight up with you here. Coming out of Memphis, you were one of my favorite players along with Craig Smith of Boston College and now Minnesota Timberwolves. Speaking as a fan in this entire question, I was a little disappointed with what was going on with you early in the season. You appeared to be lost. Was the transition with Stefanski the reason why you and the other young players as well were able to develop and have this present success?

RC: Definitely. Like I said earlier, Ed came in from a running team which played to my strengths. It put me out on the court a little more. Coach played me a little more to see what I could do. The beginning of the season, I was competing for a starting spot. I thought I played well in training camp, but didn’t get it. I played a lot in preseason and then it kind of fizzled off. I didn’t know exactly what was happening. That’s why I was lost. I didn’t know what he wanted me to do out there. I sat down with Cheeks and he told me he wanted me to play more defensive minded basketball. Then we began running which was more Memphis style.

MT: Is this a fun time for you? As a professional, is that something you can let on? Are you finally getting your bearings out there?

RC: Right now it’s becoming really fun. I’m contributing to the team. I’m not just out there sitting on the bench watching. Hopefully we can continue to win—plus we are in a playoff race. It’s a nice difference from last year. Last year, we were unhappy. This year is much different.

MT: What are the challenges of you having tremendous athleticism and getting a grasp of the NBA game?

RC: In college, I did everything 100% fast. It took me a season and a half in the NBA to realize I couldn’t do that. Coach Jimmy Lynam told me to ease off a little bit and it’s really sinking in. Sometimes I turn it on and sometimes I’m slow. You have to pick your spots. That was the biggest transition for me.

MT: Have any thoughts on Memphis?

RC: (Smiling) Well they won the conference championship today—very easily. We need to get out of the shadow of the Elite 8. We’ve been there two years straight. The sky is the limit, they can do whatever they want and get to the Final Four as long as they play hard.

MT: Is Derrick Rose the truth as advertised?

RC: From what I’ve seen. I haven’t gotten the chance to play with him. Everyone tells me he’s a great teammate, is strong and smoothly focused on winning and running the point to perfection. I haven’t seen him in person to really get a gauge on just how good he is.

MT: What is the reason behind all this success? Rodney, Thaddeus and you are adding so much to the team.

Lou Williams: I think it’s just that we are starting to gel. They are confident getting in me getting them the basketball. I know they want to score. I know Thad wants to go out and shoot off his left shoulder and Rodney wants to shoot jump shots. I try to put them in a position where they are successful. We all are athletic, so we want to get out there and run. I’m just trying to be the general out there and direct the players to their spots. On defense, we are just flying around.

MT: Can you put this win in perspective? I asked Cheeks after the Boston loss what he was going to do to keep the morale up and win a big game when given the opportunity. Since then you’ve won three. He was demonstratively happy after the Chicago win on the road, you beat Detroit on the road and then you get a win here against the defending champs.

Lou: We are just taking everything in stride. They last couple we’ve played have been huge for us. We are playing good basketball right now. Like I’ve said, we feel like we can beat anybody.

MT: One of the biggest games in quite some time is going down Wednesday here against Denver and your old teammate Allen Iverson.

Lou: You think so? (He was dead serious)

MT: Damn right. It is absolutely going to be crazy. How are you going to put the emotion in perspective? When you take the floor, it’s going to be ridiculous and most likely an atmosphere you’ve never seen here.

Lou: We’ve played some big games here and I’m sure it will be an emotional game for everybody. We have to continue to play like we’ve been playing. This is our third time playing A.I. since he’s been gone so I’m sure we’ll be trying to get a grip on that and start to prepare for them on Monday. As far as we are concerned, this is just another basketball game.
Meanwhile, the Spurs were in Philly. Manu layin’ in the cut, Bowen’s a con man and what the hell is going on with the San Antonio Spurs?

I have an issue with the Spurs and it’s something even one of their beat writers agrees with. Since I’m usually covering both teams, I have to hustle from one locker room to the other or I won’t get what I need. I waited around for Tim Duncan and dude scattered like coaches with the lights on after getting dressed in the training room. He was ineffective and shot 5-14 (16 points) in only 33 minutes. He didn’t give anything to the press pre- or post-game which leads me to speculate something is going on with the Spurs. Pop is adamant voicing his displeasure with the Gasol trade, they are 1-5 in their last six and there was some bickering back and forth on the court between Manu and Bruce Bowen over some defensive responsibilities. Maybe Duncan wasn’t talking is because he’s injured. He’s been beat down the last couple of years heading down the stretch. He didn’t play a lot of minutes even though he was definitely needed. The Sixers were able to get away with using Samuel Dalembert straight up one on one and Sammy came up with 2 key blocks on Duncan that led to the victory.

The San Antonio writer and I did have a chill moment pre game conversing with Manu and Michael Finley. The writer prematurely blurted out that Gasol was out for the year (he got it from his cab driver of all places) and Manu deferred to Finley who seems to have Gasol’s prognosis on lock when he said, “Pau Gasol has a high ankle sprain and will be out for the rest of the road trip (3 games).”

MT: Manu, you are a very talented player. You pick your sports and go with the flow in the system. You average around 31 minutes a game and still put up 20 points. You ever think you are being slighted or are you comfortable doing what you do?

Manu Ginobli: It’s the way the coach uses me. I know this year I’m scoring more and playing more. I’m trying to be more aggressive and the shots are falling. I’ve had some great games shooting from seven to eight feet and that was not my game before.

MT: Trying to give readers a sense of your early development. What made the NBA dream attainable?

MG: When I was a kid, I didn’t have the chance to watch a lot of NBA. I watched more when I was 13 with MJ, so he was the biggest influence. Most of the time, I looked up to Argentine team players. My game is the international game. You go to Europe and it’s good there. I try to fit in the system I’m playing in–first in Argentina, then in Europe and now here. I’ve been very lucky to make it here and find a place where they needed a player like me. I have a coaching staff that really trusts me.

MT: What has made this team so good over the years?

MG: Not much now (laughs). In the past it has been discipline, not being selfish, hard working and being able to create our own identity and be what we wanted. We have great talent, so that always helps.

Bruce Bowen was politicking his case to the media afterwards and uses catch phrases like it was my understanding to describe his latest brush with an NBA player when he kicked Chris Paul and was suspended a game. Dude is slick. I personally don’t know why he gets away with so much and SLAM has documented his on court transgressions whenever he’s done something blatant. He seemed a little tentative on d tonight and gave whoever he was guarding on the Sixers enough room to do whatever.

Didn’t work. Lou Williams almost had the play of the year. He crossed Manu and spun on Bowen…rose and cocked back on Duncan but missed the dunk as Timmay got a piece. Even the reporters were in awe. It reminded me of something Boom Dizzlish.

Bruce commenting on kicking Chris Paul and the subsequent suspension: “Even when it happened (the kick) I didn’t think anything of it. When I got the phone call from security (NBA), I still didn’t. I didn’t find out until like 2:00 that I was out. It was unfortunate.”

On being targeted and if the NBA is sending him a message: “The difficulty with that question is you never want a player to feel like “woe is me”. It’s too easy to feel that way. This is an unfortunate circumstance to what has went on in the past. I think about the Ray incident, where I kicked Ray. I was wrong for that. I dealt with the consequences of that. The consequences here were greater and it wasn’t a kick from what I understand. The view I saw on ESPN was the view of his back. The view that we had was opposite our bench. There’s space between he and I. My foot never comes close to his face. Then I hear a reporter say, “he kicks him in the face and then he has his hands up”. From that standpoint, it’s disappointing because I can’t go to him or his people and say you didn’t see it from this angle. You don’t want to be looked at as a player like that. That what seems to be happening. When people think of me, all they think about are situations on the court or, “He’s dirty. “

MT: What’s your philosophy on defense then just so people won’t get the wrong opinion? Are you physical just to get into the head of who you are defending? What’s your approach?

Bruce Bowen: My approach on defense? It depends on who I’m guarding. If he’s a good shooter, I try to take him off the three point line so he can’t shoot threes. That was the case with Ray Allen. Make him create his shot. They are all good, they’ll hit their shots, but you don’t want them hitting threes as opposed to a two.

MT: Slashers?

BB: Give them space and try to beat them to a spot and draw a charge. You want him to shoot the ball more than get to the basket. If they can get to the basket, they’ll get to the foul line numerous times and get into a different type of rhythm.