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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Thad Young gets back to basics

Thad Thaddeus Young was struggling. One look at the game-by-game logs revealed as much. Though his scoring average had steadily been climbing from month-to-month, Young didn’t make a shot in 20 minutes during the ugly loss in Milwaukee on March 12. 

Sixers’ coach Doug Collins noticed Young was missing something during the games against Utah and the Clippers, using him for just 13 minutes during the game in Los Angeles. The fear, says Collins, was that Young was getting run down.

“Thad went through a two or three game period where I was worried that he was tired,” Collins said.

So rather than bury Young on the bench until he regained his snap, Collins had a better idea. On an off day in Sacramento, the coach got a gym and sent Young and a handful of his teammates out to play 3-on-3. No pressure, no whistles, no scrimmages or anything resembling a regular basketball game—the task was for Young to play pickup hoops with some of his friends.

Guess what? It worked.

“Actually, the [assistant coach] Michael Curry and the coaches took Thad and some guys out to just play some up-and-down basketball and they wanted Thad to handle the ball and finish shots during the games,” Collins explained. “So they went over and played and [Curry] came back and said, ‘Thad had a great day, he was in a great rhythm.’ Then he finished that trip very strong.”

After that day in Sacramento, Young’s play improved and so did his energy level. In 23 minutes against the Kings he grabbed 10 rebounds and scored nine points despite shooting just 4-for-12. However, with Andre Iguodala on the bench for the game against Portland last Saturday night, Young scored 19 points on 9-for-11 shooting with six rebounds in 27 minutes.

Apparently all it took was breaking the game down to the basics for Young to find what he’d been missing. It makes sense, too, if you think about it. Though this is his fourth season in the NBA, Young is still just 22 and if he had stayed at Georgia Tech to play all four seasons, he’d be a rookie in the league this year.

Instead, basketball had been a job for Young when he was still a teenager and though he may be a veteran in the league in terms of experience, every once in a while he still needs to strip the game down to its essence and just play.

“We went to the gym—me, Marreese [Speights], Evan Turner,Craig Brackins, Coach Curry and Coach McKie—and we got in there and just played,” Young said. “We played 3-on-3 just to get me back in the groove. Sometimes that’s what you need to get a feel for the ball and to get you a feel for the court and the gym to get you back in a rhythm.”

In Wednesday night’s victory over the Hawks, Young was the best player on the floor. As the first player off the bench, Young scored 16 points on 12 shots, blocked a couple of shots and caused all sorts of trouble for the Hawks in the paint. Most telling was the fact that Collins kept Young in the game for all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter. 

Better yet, Collins said Young was an instant shot of energy when he was in the game, especially after stoppages in play. With the Hawks holding a lead throughout Wednesday’s game, which they built to 11 points in the fourth quarter, Young and fellow reserve Lou Williams proved to be the catalysts of the Sixers’ 11-0 run to start the final quarter.

“He gives us a speed and a quickness advantage,” Collins said, noting that Young would likely be a starter on another team. “We came out of three or four timeouts [on Wednesday night against the Hawks] where he scored every time. … As a coach it makes you feel so good when you can score coming out of a timeout.”

So maybe Collins’ plan worked?

“Any time you have a day off you want to do something,” Young said. “The other guys went to lift and the six of us went to the gym to play some 3-on-3 to get ourselves back in rhythm.”

Meanwhile, with Andre Iguodala again questionable with right knee tendonitis for Friday’s game in Miami, Collins will need Young to be the spark.