MAYBE AS a group, the 76ers are very good at tossing horseshoes and lobbing hand grenades, as they certainly like to keep things close.
The Sixers lost their 11th straight last night, 90-86, to the Detroit Pistons at the Wachovia Center. Nine of the losses during the streak have come by a total of 32 points. What's even more disturbing about last night's game is that they were facing a team, much like themselves, depleted by injuries.
Detroit was without Tayshaun Prince (ruptured back disc), Rip Hamilton and Ben Gordon (both sprained ankles). So the Pistons turned to guard Rodney Stuckey, who deposited a game-high 27 points, including the game-winner, and rookie Jonas Jerebko, who scored all 17 of his points in the second half.
"It's gonna get better," Allen Iverson said, after his second start since returning to the team. "This is one of those times you find out what kind of character you have, especially as men but as basketball players as well. You find out how much you trust your teammates, how much you believe in them. It's easy to feel good when everything is going right. It's easy to not point fingers, but when things are going wrong, you buckle down and trust each other and believe in each other. You go out there and go hard and do things for your teammates, and then when things are going well, you realize that's how you got to that point."
Getting that streak-breaking win has been painstakingly close but ultimately unattainable.
Last night, a win was there for the taking, yet again.
Iverson tied the game at 86-86 on a pull-up, 17-footer with 1 minute, 4 seconds left. The Sixers forced a shot-clock violation on Detroit's next possession, but then missed two bunnies from close in, one each by Andre Iguodala and Sam Dalembert. On a rebound by Stuckey, Detroit got the ball back with 28.9 seconds left.
There was little doubt in the building who would take the shot, as Stuckey had driven at will to the basket all night. He did it again on an isolation against Iguodala from the top of the key. Iguodala met the ball as Stuckey tried to shoot a runner, sending it toward the right baseline. Stuckey calmly picked it up and hit a 9-footer on the baseline for an 88-86 lead.
After a timeout, Iguodala took a feed from Iverson and launched a wide-open 27-footer that clanked off the back of the rim. Stuckey grabbed the rebound and hit two subsequent foul shots for the final score.
"That is what we drew up," Sixers coach Eddie Jordan said of the final play. "Allen coming off a double screen with the option to go one-on-one. We had Andre coming off another double and if Andre is open, he was there for a shot, then Allen was there for a flair. Andre was open, he laced it up, got his feet set. He had plenty of time to get it off."
Iguodala led five players in double figures for the Sixers with 18 points, while Elton Brand and Dalembert each had 17. Iverson and Thad Young both added 11.
Iverson, in his second game after his return to the team, seemed quicker and more confident on the court, where he was for 33:27. He had three assists but turned the ball over six times.
"I felt a lot better than I did the first game [Monday against Denver]," Iverson said. "In the fourth quarter, I kind of stiffened up but I thought coach did a great job of how he coached the last quarter. Those guys were going and once he saw an opportunity for me to get in there, he put me in. I'm not gonna just all of the sudden feel 100 percent. I understand it's going to be a process. It's something that I'm going to have to work through."
Which, almost to a man, is what the rest of the players in the locker room say they must do to end the streak. It would have helped last night if they had done a better job on the boards, where Detroit had a 45-32 advantage. During the Pistons' 14-3 third-quarter scoring spree that turned a 49-46 Sixers lead into a 60-52 deficit, Detroit snared three key offensive rebounds.
Perhaps the Sixers should think about bringing back Charles Barkley? Right now, they'd probably do anything to break the slide.
"I think it just takes that first win," said guard Willie Green, who scored six of the Sixers' 12 bench points. "It has been tough. It has been a tough stretch for this team. Even now that we have A.I. back, it is still in the back of our minds that we need to get a win. We need to get a win quick, fast, in a hurry."
Iverson doesn't think it will be easy.
"It is like having a gorilla on your back," he said. "I was telling them that the next game that we win, it's not going to be easy and it's going to be one of the hardest games ever for you to win."
Hard or easy, the team and the coaches will take it either way. Whether it's in front of a quiet crowd of 12,136 that was there last night, or the sellout they enjoyed during Monday's game.
No matter the place or situation, they'll take that win. This staying close stuff isn't cutting it anymore.