QUESTION: WHOM do the 76ers look up to?
Answer: In the standings, just about everyone.
Question: With last night's flat, dreary 88-79 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, their 10th defeat in 13 games, is morale becoming a problem?
Answer: By all accounts, no.
For those of you searching for even the slimmest ray of hope, that's close as you will get after the Sixers' home record fell to 2-6. As far as the players are concerned, they're down, but they're not out.
In truth, they're further down than they think.
They lost this one to the young Hawks (7-9), who are still trying to figure out themselves, much less the opponents. They contend that they're playing hard, but not smart. They haven't exactly lost direction, but they spent the second half as if they had lost sight of the basket. They shot 3-for-13 in the third quarter, and followed that with a 6-for-22 fourth quarter.
At second glance, that third quarter was even worse than we thought: It included five field goals, five assists and 10, count 'em, 10 turnovers.
Their shooting is a problem, their halfcourt offense is somewhat of a problem, but their morale is . . .
"Really fine," Kyle Korver said. "We don't mope around. You can't say we don't play hard each game. That's when morale is low, when you don't play hard. That's not our problem at all. We're not playing very smart basketball. We can have bad stretches in a game, and we did tonight, but we were still there at the end. We had one too many of those stretches."
Again, in truth, they weren't in it as much as they thought they were. They never led by more than three points and lost their last lead on a layup by rookie Al Horford with 8:03 remaining in the third quarter. If being within 70-66 with 9:59 left in the fourth translates to being right there, then they were right there.
But they really weren't.
The Hawks, who had dropped their last seven games in the Wachovia Center and were 27-104 on the road under coach Mike Woodson, had too much energy and too many weapons. They weren't great, but they didn't need to be. Josh Smith put together 22 points, seven rebounds, six assists, four blocks and two steals, and four of his teammates scored in double figures, including Horford, who also had a game-high 13 rebounds.
Before the game, Woodson, a former Sixers assistant coach, said of his team: "They're right there. They're teetering the fence. They're right there knocking on the door. Somehow, as a coach, I've got to get them over the hump."
Whatever he did, he at least got them past the Sixers.
"I thought it was kind of a flat game in the beginning," Sixers coach Maurice Cheeks said. "Both teams couldn't get anything going, and then in the second quarter [when Willie Green scored 16 of his team-high 23 points], we got something going; we got ourselves up and down the floor, we got some defensive stops. One of our challenges is that we've got to do things the same way both halves . . . We have to try to get our 'tale of two halves'; we've got to try and get them on the same page."
"We just have to win some games, put some games together; that's it," Andre Iguodala said.
His take on morale was similar to Korver's.
"That's just tough to read," he said. "Most guys are trying to stay positive. I haven't seen [a problem] yet. If it has happened, I haven't seen it yet."
They're not necessarily a happy 5-12 bunch, but they insisted they haven't even thought about a team meeting.
"We're just not winning," Iguodala said. "You can go down the list of games we should have gotten. As of now, we just have to win."
Korver smiled wryly at the suggestion of a team meeting.
"I've been in a lot of team meetings," he said. "They don't usually do anything. That's the last thing I want to have. We don't need one. We practice hard, we play hard. We've just got to be smarter."
That's some bottom line: Effort, preparation and morale are fine.
It's everything else that's the problem. *