Iguodala’s pep talk was the turning point

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Always the optimist, Doug Collins says he never got down when the Sixers struggled to a 3-13 start the first month of the season. Still, even the half-full view often left the coach with some doubts.

Whatever doubts Collins might have had disappeared for good on Friday night when his club clinched a playoff spot with a 25-point win over the New Jersey Nets at the Center. From 3-13 to 40-36 in a little more than four months takes a lot of believe insomething.

Belief and stubbornness, Collins said.

“I wasn’t sure,” Collins said after the 115-90 victory, “but I hadn’t given up hope. We weren’t going to change what we were doing because we believed in what we were doing. I believe that if you do things that are worth doing that good things will happen. We weren’t going to change.”

Still, there was a moment early on when everything just sort of came together. Part light bulb and part pep talk, the turning point of the season came after a tough loss in Miami the day after Thanksgiving when Andre Iguodala got the team together and gave them a very simple message…

“We’re close,” he told his teammates. “Let’s stick together.”

From that point, the Sixers have gone 37-23 and are the one team in the Eastern Conference that the heavyweights want to avoid in the first round of the playoffs.

Still, did Iguodala realize then that his words would resonate so profoundly? 

“With some of the personalities we have it’s all about confidence,” Iguodala said. “Some of the guys play well based off if the ball is going in the hole for them or not. If the ball is not going in the hole the guy’s confidence can get shot. We had just lost to Miami and we played well, so I felt I had to reiterate to the guys that if we continue to play at that level we’ll beat the majority of the teams in the league and we’ll be alright. Since then, we’ve been doing that.”

What Iguodala’s words did was show the younger guys on the team that just because they were 3-13 that the season wasn’t over. Though it seemed as if the Sixers couldn’t wait for the year to end last season when they only won 27 games with a coach in Eddie Jordan that just didn’t mesh well with the ballclub, it would have been easy for a poor start to demoralize the team.

However, with an active roster comprised of six players with three or fewer years of experience and just five guys over the age of 24, Iguodala’s speech and Elton Brand to support was gigantic.

“For the guys to know that I was 100 percent on board and trying and Andre was on board and trying, it showed that we weren’t giving up on the season even though we were 3-13,” Brand said. 

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Long suffering Elton Brand finally gets second chance at playoffs

Brand_doug There aren’t a whole lot of details that Elton Brand remembers from his last trip to the NBA playoffs except for one important one…

“It was too short,” Brand said.

Five years ago with the Los Angeles Clippers, Brand carried his team to the seventh game of the Western Conference semifinals against the Phoenix Suns where his 36-point performance just wasn’t enough to advance. In fact, with Brand averaging 31 points, 10 rebounds and more than 45 minutes per game in the series, there wasn’t much more he could have done for his Clippers.

Had Brand and the Clippers won Game 7, he certainly would have been the toast of Tinseltown since the Lakers had already lost to the Suns in the previous round. Still, his best memory of his lone playoff appearance is quite pure and it has to do with the basics of why people play the game.

“The excitement and how hard everybody plays – it’s amazing,” Brand said. “Then to win a series and put another team down, that’s what I’ll remember.”

But as fate would have it, Brand hasn’t been back to the playoffs since. More notably, who would have guessed that in 11 NBA seasons headed into the 2010-11 campaign that the 2005-06 Clippers would be the only winning team Brand played for.

Until now, that is.

Wednesday night’s 108-97 victory over the Houston Rockets at the Center all but sewed up a spot for the 76ers in the postseason. The worst the team can do is tie for the No. 8 seed, but of course the Sixers would have to lose the last seven games of the season and the Charlotte Bobcats would have to win out. The chances of that happening are less than one percent.

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Sixers stand with their closer

Iguodala There was a moment during the 2009 baseball season when the easy move for manager Charlie Manuel would have simply been for him to sit down Brad Lidge as his closer. In fact, it was set up perfectly for Manuel to pull the plug on Lidge after a late-September game in Miami where the closer gave up two runs on three hits and a walk to give one away.

But Manuel would not bail on his guy despite the 11 blown saves and an ERA closing in on 8. Why would he?

“These are our guys. We’ll stick with him,” Manuel said before a game in Milwaukee that year. “Lidge has to do it. Between him and [Ryan] Madson, they’ve got to get it done.  … We’ve just got to get better.”

Of course Manuel said he wasn’t going to depose Lidge as the closer even though he used him just four times over the final 11 games and pushed Madson into the two save chances the team had down the stretch. In other words, Lidge was the closer even though Madson was pitching the ninth inning. That’s what is called “managing” and Manuel had been around long enough to know that if he lost Lidge in late 2009, he might not ever get him back.

Apparently loyalty is a character flaw in the eyes of most sports fans.

Just look at how folks are up in arms about Sixers’ coach Doug Collins putting the ball in Andre Iguodala’s hands at the end of tight game. To steal some baseball jargon, Iguodala is the Sixers’ closer and in a tied game with the clock winding down, it’s up to him to get the team some points any way possible.

“The ball’s going to be in his hands,” Collins said after Sunday’s 114-111 overtime loss to the Sacramento Kings.

Iguodala had the ball with seven seconds left in Sunday’s game and the Sixers trailing by two points. Viewed as the team’s best “playmaker,” this made perfect sense. Iguodala could penetrate, look for an open man, pull up for a jumper or drive to the hoop. It’s nothing new and since Allen Iverson left town, Iguodala has been the closer and succeeded at a better rate than the other A.I.

Actually, according to the advanced metrics that measure such things, Iguodala is 16th in the NBA since 2006 in “clutch” points, which account for performance with five minutes to go in the fourth quarter or overtime when neither team ahead by more than five points. Interestingly, Iguodala rated better than All-Stars Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Vince Carter.

This season Iguodala’s scoring average in clutch time has dipped nearly 20 points with Lou Williams leading the club with 28.4 points in clutch time. However, based on other advanced stats, Iguodala is still the man to have the ball when it’s on the line. A look at turnovers, shooting percentage and the inscrutable plus-minus, Collins is right to give the ball to Iguodala. Failing that, Elton Brand is the next-best option.

Reality and statistics seldom mesh, though[1]. That’s when perception takes over and often that does nothing more than unfairly marginalize a player. In this area, perception might as well be Iguodala’s middle name.

In some circles, Iguodala is a poor player because he has a “superstar salary” and not a superstar game. The reality is that notion is just plain stupid. Iguodala barely cracks the top 40 in the NBA in annual salary and isn’t even the highest paid player on the Sixers. Is he one of the top 40 players in the league? Yeah, probably. Is he the best player on the team?

Do we have to answer that?

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