THEIR TWO leading scorers combined for just 17 points, but it wasn't so much what Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala did as the guttiness with which they did it in last night's 108-97 victory over the Houston Rockets in the Wells Fargo Center. Brand was feeling kind of punk with a stomach virus, and Iguodala still is hampered by a sore right knee that has made him virtually a one-legged player.
No wonder their younger teammates look up to the two veterans, whose professionalism and dedication over 19 total NBA seasons (12 for Brand, seven for Iguodala) has seldom been rewarded with postseason appearances, much less postseason success.
Now the question is, with the Sixers' magic number at one for clinching a berth in the Eastern Conference playoffs, how much longer can this banged-up bunch keep demonstrating that a team such as itself is more than the sum of its individual parts?
"I wanted to do whatever I could out there to help my team," said Brand, who finished with eight points, four rebounds, three blocked shots, an assist and a steal in 28-plus uncomfortable minutes. "These [remaining] games are precious. We're one step closer. We have our destiny in our hands. Win one more and we're in."
Brand's line wasn't too shabby for a player Sixers coach Doug Collins said was "sick as a dog" and had "nothing, absolutely nothing" going for him except heaping measures of want-to.
OK, so just making it to the postseason isn't likely to prompt the popping of champagne corks, should the Sixers (39-36) take care of business tomorrow night when they host the New Jersey Nets, who are just playing out the string. But considering where this team has been in the not-too-distant past - 27-55 during the 2009-10 season, and 3-13 to start the current campaign - a turn around the floor in the pros' version of the Big Dance is no small feat.
"We needed [a victory] more than Houston," said second-year point guard Jrue Holiday, who continued his remarkable progress by finishing with 24 points and 12 assists, both game highs. "We really want to be in the playoffs. I know I do. It'll be my first time."
Brand's cranky stomach was more or less matched by the lack of liftoff for Iguodala, normally one of the NBA's most astounding leapers, who was called upon more by Collins to shadow the Rockets' leading scorer, Kevin Martin, than to amaze the crowd of 16,635 with some of his old aerial acrobatics. Martin finished with 18 points, below his season average of 23.2, but Iguodala did his part on the offensive end, too, with nine points - seven of which came in the second half - and 10 assists.
"Dre's smart," Collins said. "He's a brilliant basketball player. He really is. He has great instincts and such a high basketball IQ."
Collins' opinion of Iguodala was seconded by Holiday, who praised him as "a competitor. He's the leader of our team. He's playing on one leg, but he wants to be out there."
After the Sixers jumped out to a 9-0 lead, Houston's shooters found their collective stroke, knocking down five of six three-pointers to seize a 33-30 lead after the opening period. Such a run was almost to be expected; over their last five games, the Rockets had averaged 113 points.
Houston, which fell to 39-36, also had something to play for. But the Rockets, who trailed the Memphis Grizzlies by two games for the eighth and final playoff berth in the Western Conference standings, were unable to maintain that momentum, in large part because the Sixers limited them to just 15 points in the fourth quarter. The Rockets are now three games back after the Grizzlies defeated Golden State last night.
"If you lose, you're hoping that [the teams ahead of yours] lose," said Houston coach Rick Adelman.
Not only did the Rockets have no answer for Holiday, they couldn't put the clamps on Thaddeus Young, who came off the bench to pour in 22 points, singlehandedly outscoring the Rockets' bench, which managed only 20. Young's big game is especially notable considering that he took a bad fall in Monday's 97-85 victory at Chicago.
"It gave me visions of when I blew out my knee," Collins said, recalling his own playing days. "I was sick to my stomach."
The Sixers might not be able to make up enough ground on the Atlanta Hawks to rise to a fifth seed, but, illness and injury notwithstanding, they appear to be in good position to close strong. Five of their final seven games are at the Wells Fargo Center.
And Young and Holiday appear capable of keeping things in order until Brand and Iguodala get healthier.
"Jrue is amazing," Collins said. "This kid is going to be so good. He had five turnovers; I got on his [butt] about that. But I see greatness in this kid."