Sixers Spoil Indiana's Home OpenerAn enthusiastic sellout crowd of 18,345 at Conseco Fieldhouse expected to see Indiana, fresh off of a road victory over the Miami Heat, defeat the winless Phildelphia 76ers in the Pacers' home opener--but the Sixers played with tremendous energy and took advantage of 20 Indiana turnovers to win 111-109. Allen Iverson struggled from the field, shooting 11-29, but he produced 29 points, 12 assists, five rebounds and three steals as the Sixers provided Maurice Cheeks his first win as Sixers coach. Iverson hit the deck a few times after strong drives to the hoop, but shook off the bumps and bruises to become the first player to play all 48 minutes of a regulation game this season. Chris Webber had 25 points and nine rebounds for the Sixers, while Jermaine O'Neal led the Pacers with 23 points and 15 rebounds. Indiana point guard Jamaal Tinsley had 21 points, six assists and three steals before fouling out and Stephen Jackson scored 14 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter as the Pacers made a furious run after trailing by as many as 20 points in the third quarter.
A few nights ago, the Sixers played their home opener before a similarly enthusiastic crowd and dropped a 117-108 decision in overtime to the Milwaukee Bucks. Several Sixers legends--including Hall of Famers Julius Erving and Moses Malone--were present at the game to offer support to their former teammate Cheeks in his debut as the Sixers head coach. During the pre-game media availability session at the Pacers-Sixers game, I asked Coach Cheeks to talk about how special it was to have those players return for the home opener. In light of the loss, Cheeks laughed, "That was probably the only special part of the night." Then, on a more serious note, he added, "That was special. Any time you bring back some players you played with and won a championship with, and had great times with, it's always special. To see them standing over on the side was beautiful. We had a little conversation and had a good time." Cheeks smiled before adding, "I could have used a couple of those guys." Cheeks agreed with me that it is important for teams--and the NBA in general--to continue to do things like that, to keep the legends in the forefront to preserve the history of the game. Cheeks noted, "Most teams bring former players back who had some impact on the league. Younger players see that--although they may not have any recollection of those players--and then it is explained that this guy did this and that guy did that. When we go to certain arenas and see numbers up in the rafters some of these guys are so young that they don't even know (who they are). So to bring them back and let guys see them and know who they are and some of the accomplishments that they achieved is pretty good."
Earlier in that session, Mark Montieth of the Indianapolis Star asked Coach Cheeks about Kyle Korver's shooting slump and Cheeks responded that every NBA player goes through something like that at one point or another. He said that Korver and his teammates must work together to help him get out of it. I followed up by asking if those kind of slumps are the result of a technical flaw in the shooting motion or simply a mental hurdle that the player has to overcome. Cheeks replied, "The game can play mind games on you. When you miss a few, you start thinking about it a little bit more. So the thing that you have to do--and he tried it last night, but unfortunately it didn't happen--is try to get some easier baskets. When you get easier baskets it makes the basket bigger. Kyle is kind of like us--and I think that I said this last night: when he starts making a few shots and we win a couple games, we'll be pretty good." Those words turned out to be very prophetic.
It is always interesting to watch how the players prepare for the game during warmups--not the layup line right before tipoff, but the 45 minute warmup that ends 45 minutes before gametime (players are not necessarily on the court for the whole 45 minute period). On the Sixers' side, Korver shot almost nothing but three pointers while I was watching and he made nearly every one that he took. Perhaps that was a sign of things to come, because he shot 3-5 on three-pointers during the game, finishing with 15 points while tying a career-high with nine assists. Meanwhile, on the Pacers' side, Sarunas Jasikevicius, the 29 year old rookie from Lithuania, worked on a variety of dribble drive moves, starting beyond the three-point line and pulling up for mid-range jumpers. This is an important part of his continuing development, because in the NBA he will have to be able to do more than just hit open three- pointers; when the defense denies that option he must be able to create opportunities for himself (and his teammates) off of the dribble. Assistant coach Chad Forcier told Jasikevicius what to do (for instance, left to right crossover dribble, followed by a pull up jumper off of the backboard) and then defended against him as he worked on the move; it was like watching a choreographer teaching a dancer some new steps. After that, Jasikevicius shot three-pointers from both wings and the top of the key and then sank several free throws. His shooting stroke is very pretty--a quick flick of the wrist, no wasted motion--and very accurate. His inability to keep up defensively or handle the ball against Philly's pressure defense limited him to under nine minutes playing time, but during that brief stint he sank two three-pointers in three attempts.
Jasikevicius was not the only Pacer who struggled with his ballhandling; Ron Artest had eight turnovers and, other than Tinsley, the team had difficulty whenever Philadelphia trapped or pressured ball handlers. If Tinsley has to miss extended playing time due to foul trouble or injury the Pacers could have problems against teams that pressure and trap.
After the game, the Sixers players presented the game ball to Coach Cheeks. In his postgame standup, Cheeks said, "This was a heck of a win for us. Our attention to detail was big. When we play a team like this, we know they are going to make some runs. Kyle was big for us, as was our bench. I thought Steven Hunter was phenomenal. Everyone who stepped on the floor tonight made a huge impact for us."
During his postgame press conference, Indiana Coach Rick Carlisle said, "Give Philly credit for how they came in here. They deserved to win. For three quarters they carried the game. I was glad to see us fight back in the fourth. But it's the same old story; you've got to play four quarters to win. We really picked it up in the fourth but it was too late. We all own this one. From me on down to everyone that played." He singled out poor defense and the high number of turnovers as the two biggest reasons that the Pacers lost.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:50 AM