MAURICE CHEEKS said he didn't remind the 76ers about March 18 of last season. He didn't have to. Anyone who wore a uniform last season had that game with Houston indelibly imprinted in his mind's eye. No matter how much time passes, you don't forget a 124-74 loss. You don't just wipe away the memory of the worst home loss in the team's history, the third-worst home loss in NBA history.
Part of the mission last night was to be much, much better than that. And the Sixers were, leading the Rockets by as many as 31 points with 4 minutes, 25 seconds left in the fourth quarter, then holding on for a 100-88 victory. That gave them their first (only) three-game winning streak of the season, and left them 3-2 since the arrival of Eddie Stefan-ski as the new president/general manager.
The Sixers used opportunity traps on 7-6 center Yao Ming and scoring star Tracy McGrady designed to keep the ball out of their hands and having to guess from which direction the pressure would come. McGrady, who had all 12 of his points in the first quarter, left with 7:53 remaining in the third quarter, hobbling on a sprained ankle. He hit five of six shots in the opening period and was 0-for-2 the rest of the way. Yao had 12 points and nine rebounds, shot 3-for-11 from the floor and was never a factor.
"I would have liked to finish that game up by 51, like they did to us last year, but we'll take whatever we get," Kyle Korver said.
Even though the Rockets came within 94-84 with 1:59 left, the Sixers' performance was so dominant that none of the visitors starters - Yao, McGrady, Chuck Hayes, Shane Battier and Steve Francis - appeared in the final quarter. They left for home 0-3 on their trip, with last night's game preceded by losses in New Jersey and Toronto.
"We absolutely beat ourselves," McGrady said. "We didn't do anything right in the first half. Teams have figured out if they double Yao, double me, the onus is on the other guys to make plays, and that's not happening. They take the ball out of my hands and we don't know what to do. It's just frustrating. This should have been a trip we swept."
If there were a Sixers catalyst other than the memory of last season's miserable loss, it was the remarkable energy, aggressiveness and effectiveness of point guard Andre Miller, who torched the Rockets for 17 points, 12 assists and three steals. This was Miller's fourth straight game with at least 10 assists, and left him with four-game averages of 15.8 points and 11.3 assists.
"Andre was just incredible," Andre Iguodala said. "When he's playing at that level, our team usually does well. I know if there's anybody we really need, it would be him. We definitely need Sam [center Samuel Dalembert], but the person we need the most on the team is [Miller]."
Characteristically, Miller merely shrugged at the suggestion that his game had somehow changed.
"Sometimes you're aggressive, sometimes you're not," he said. "[You] pick and choose when you can be scoring the ball, when you're getting everybody else going. It's kind of a mixture."
Cheeks doesn't like to live in the past, saying of last season's brutal loss, "We were very conscious of it, but I try to play today as today."
What he underscored to the players was a necessity to push the ball up the floor, to try to score as many transition baskets as possible, to defensively get in the passing lane, to use quick hands to break the ball free. The Sixers finished with a 17-11 advantage in fastbreaks, but those must be scored within 6 seconds of gaining possession. The bigger advantage of running in this one was an ability to get in the paint, where they built a 46-26 differential.
"We kind of faltered late, but early on to build the lead is one of the things we've been emphasizing," Cheeks said. "We got the big lead, then had to hold on a little bit. It's always a tough game when you're up 20-25 points because your players' minds are going to relax a little, which is a natural thing. The players have to learn to play with those types of leads. I hope we have a lot of those."
As reporters were busily filing their game reports on tight deadlines, the arena's fire alarm went off.
No need. Everybody knew the Sixers were hot. *