“I don’t know.”
It was a response by 76ers coach Doug Collins that he hadn’t uttered all season long, but he was saying it following his team’s bad loss to Washington on Friday night. Collins was responding to a question which asked how he thought his team might come back the next night when they faced the Atlanta Hawks.
It was a bit of an eerie response and said much, much more than the three words. It made you wonder if there was something deeper going on with this team than that was brought to light by that 97-76 loss to the Wizards.
“It was the first time I said I don’t know because I didn’t know,” said Collins, after his team bounced back with a 95-90 win over the Hawks on Saturday to improve to 29-23. “I was having nightmares of 3-13 and I told our guys that story. I said that I wanted to believe that that’s not who we are and they showed me (Saturday) that that’s not who we are.”
Collins was speaking of the team’s start last season, in which they almost invented new ways to lose games. It was also a time when the team and coach didn’t appear to be on the same page very often, when doubt seemed to be getting to a boiling point.
But after a loss in Miami, forward Andre Iguodala told the players that they were close, that things were coming together and that they were on the verge of turning things around. The Sixers finished the rest of the season 38-28, and showed themselves nicely in a first-round, five-game loss to the Miami Heat in the playoffs.
So as confidence appeared to hit a season-low after Friday’s game, Collins went to Iguodala and veteran forward Elton Brand, asking for a bit of leadership in trying to pull the team out of its funk.
For a game, at least, it worked. Iguodala (18) and Brand (25) combined to score 43 of the team’s points, but more importantly spearheaded big plays when they were needed most as the Sixers improved to 3-14 in games decided by seven points or less.
“I talked to (Brand) before the (Atlanta) game and I talked to Dre before the game and I said ‘Guys, for two years we’ve put a lot into this to get it turned around.’ And those are two special guys for me. E.B. has suffered through a ton of injuries and to see him last year get resurrected and Dre, to see all that he’s gone through here, with all the coaching changes and for him to step up to the plate and do what he did…That was great leadership they showed.”
Leadership that is sorely needed as this grind of a season seems to be hitting many of the key players at once. Saturday, Collins played Thaddeus Young just 20 minutes, 39 seconds due to heavy legs. Lou Williams played under 17 minutes as Collins said he thought his sub guard was tired and starting point guard Jrue Holiday sat through long stretches early before finishing strong. When tiredness sets in, sloppiness rises while the attention span decreases. Hearing the same voice (Collins) preach about it over and over again becomes like background music, eventually you just tune it out.
“I think guys are tired, they really are,” said Collins. “Coaches are tired, players are tired. I sent an email to my boss at 4 (Saturday morning). That’s how (restless) I was. I stayed in bed till 3:30 in the afternoon (Saturday), I couldn’t even get out of bed. I just laid there and thought about our team and how can I get us back on track, that was my only thought.”
Collins must have come to the conclusion that he needed help. That’s why he approached Brand and Iguodala.
“The thing is I tell him we do speak, we have meetings before we talk to him and I tell him that,” said Brand, who posted a season-high in points and assists (five) Saturday and also grabbed 10 rebounds. “We speak among ourselves. But coach is emotional, coach is with us and he wants to hear it too. But we already have the talks sometimes before he talks, but he wants to be a part of it, which he deserves, because he puts so much into all this.
“He’s balancing things out, but I don’t mind hearing him at all. I’m under the tutelage of him. I’m all for coaches trying to get under your butt and getting the best out of you, which is what Coach does. I remind our guys of that. I do. Because a lot of these guys are so young, right out of college, so it’s a little different for them.”
“I think it was important for me and Elton to get us through (Saturday’s game), and for the rest of the season, actually, especially going into the playoffs,” said Iguodala, who also posted eight rebounds and four assists. “We’ve been through so many game situations we need to show the young guys that we have been through them and the right way to get through them.”