DENVER - Tony DiLeo, on the eve of this six-game trek, said that, one way or another, the 76ers would come back a better team.
Sometimes, it turns out, you have to go far from home to find out what you can be. The Sixers last night played a mile above sea level, not necessarily above their heads, but, for huge chunks of the game, above the Denver Nuggets.
Never mind the 3-0 start to DiLeo's tenure as the coaching replacement for the fired Maurice Cheeks, or the two losses that followed, this was easily the best they played since he took over.
They just couldn't sustain it long enough, eventually succumbing, 105-101. But the way it went down at the end was really, really hard for them to swallow.
True, they led by as many as 17 points in the third quarter and by 11 going into the fourth. True, the Nuggets stormed back. But the Nuggets were up, 102-101, with 2.9 seconds left with Chucky Atkins about to attempt two free throws.
That's when Andre Miller tried what he thought was a veteran move, stepping in front of Atkins, trying to delay and/or distract the Nuggets guard. Referee Rodney Mott called Miller for a technical foul. Chauncey Billups knocked down the technical free throw, then Atkins stepped back in and hit his two shots.
"I didn't do nothin'," a disconsolate Miller said afterward. "I didn't say nothin'. I was just trying to stall the free throw. Maybe it was a stupid move, but I didn't expect a tech. Maybe a delay [of game], not a tech. Guys do that all the time. I didn't say anything. There was no explanation. I guess he was tired of us in his ear."
DiLeo said: "I'm not sure what Andre said. It wasn't a good time."
In a game that included 23 lead changes, Andre Iguodala led the Sixers with 24 points, but got called for traveling while attempting to move into the lane with 3.7 seconds remaining. It was the Sixers' 16th turnover. The Nuggets committed 24 turnovers, but made up for a lot of ills with 15 three-pointers, seven by J.R. Smith.
Miller had 19 points and eight assists in an otherwise fine performance, but the Nuggets countered with 27 points from Smith and 26 points and 10 assists from Billups.
"We had a few mental mistakes at the end," Iguodala said. "We played well enough to win. We just didn't win. Some of it was on us. Some of it was on them."
Iguodala, like everyone else in the visitors' locker room afterward, was discouraged by the call against Miller, among others.
"With us, I'm not surprised," he said. "It seems like the calls have been like that all year. We've got to make the perfect play. [The technical] was just another one. That's the way it's been for us all year . . . We've got to play through it."
DiLeo called it "a tough game" and said he was "proud of the players."
"They played their hearts out," he said. "Denver just got hot when they were down, and it was tough to stop them. They were 24-for-25 at the foul line, we were 18-for-30. Maybe if we had been a little better, it might have been a different story."
The Sixers lost, 110-91, Tuesday night in Boston. They had a short practice Wednesday and left Thursday for Denver, some on the team charter, some on commercial flights.
Somehow, they all came together to face the Nuggets. Willie Green, who missed the Celtics game with an aggravated left ankle sprain, was back in the starting lineup and contributed 13 points. Backup center Theo Ratliff, who missed the Celtics game because of the flu, was in uniform.
Besides the absence of Elton Brand, rehabbing from a dislocated right shoulder, they were at full strength. (Reggie Evans inscribed both sneakers with "EB 42," a tribute to the missing power forward.)
Nuggets coach George Karl was leery of the Sixers at full strength. He flinched when a reporter reminded him they hadn't hit a three-point shot in the previous two games.
"Don't say that," Karl said. "They might hit 13 tonight."
Predictably, Green took - and made - the Sixers' first three-point attempt early in the first quarter. But with the Nuggets holding a 15-5 advantage in treys, that meant a scoring differential of 45-15.
The Sixers led by as many as 17 points in the third period, bringing down a rain of boos from the sold-out Pepsi Center crowd of 19,155.
They were driven excellently by Miller, who outplayed Billups for much of the evening.
"There are not many people, probably less than 20 in basketball, who can orchestrate and lead an NBA team as a true point guard," Karl said. "We play a lot of guys at the position, but there aren't many true point guards. If I was a team that needed a point guard, [Miller] would be at the top of my list next year as a free agent."
DiLeo wouldn't argue the point, saying Miller "has had a very good season. When he's had to score, he can score. When he's had to get people involved, he's gotten people involved."
"Since I took over, I've been very happy with the way he has controlled the team, like a coach on the floor for us," DiLeo said. "He understands and sees things on the court a lot of people don't see." *
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