EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Fortunately for the Philadelphia 76ers, their latest opponent has completely stopped caring about the regular season.
Sixers banging on playoff door
Must have reminded the Sixers of what they looked like up until three games ago.
Showing they do indeed care about salvaging their season and securing a postseason berth, the Sixers got 40 points and 10 assists from Allen Iverson and 18 points with 11 rebounds from Chris Webber in his first game back from a two-game injury absence to defeat the New Jersey Nets 116-96 Wednesday night at the Meadowlands.
The Nets, already all but locked into the No. 3 seed in the East, fell behind by 22 in the second quarter and barely put up a fight in the second half while falling behind by as many as 30. And you know what? New Jersey's didn't-care quotient was matched only by the Sixers' desperation measure.
"We've just been playing harder. I don't know why this has all of a sudden clicked like it has. We've said all along we have tools, we have talent," Kyle Korver said. "For a while, our effort just wasn't there, but I can't put a finger on why it was that way."
The bad news for the Sixers was that Chicago, Indiana and Milwaukee also won, leaving them on the outside looking up at eight teams slotted ahead of them in the Eastern Conference playoff race. With four games remaining, Philadelphia might need to win them all to make it to the playoffs. They would lose any tiebreakers involving themselves, the Bulls, Pacers and Bucks, and both Indiana and Milwaukee are already one game ahead of Philadelphia in the loss column.
"We have to go to Miami, and they already clinched their spot. So hopefully they'll feel the same way," Iverson said. "We have some confidence in ourselves right now, and we have to keep it for the rest of the season."
I spent some time before the game trying to pick general manager Billy King's brain for an explanation as to what has gone wrong, but he wasn't exactly bubbling forth with detailed answers. To decipher his best material, you almost had to read between his lines.
"If I knew what was wrong, we wouldn't be where we are right now. I know the areas we have to improve on, but I'll keep it to myself and my staff," King said.
One area in which he would go into some detail concerned the Sixers' level of experience, and King said he has learned the hard way that Philadelphia needed the type of character veterans, guys like Aaron McKie and Marc Jackson, who were on the roster last season and provided something that never shows up in a box score -- guidance.
Pointing to Philadelphia's 22 losses by single-digit margins and 11 losses in which the Sixers entered the fourth quarter with a lead, King argued that his team might have won a few of those close ones had there been more of a leadership presence to guide some of Philadelphia's younger players, guys like Samuel Dalembert, Korver and Andre Iguodala who have been asked to become key contributors at a time when their limited level of experience is holding them back.
"We can't play defense, and I'm not sure we have the right personnel," King said.
The Sixers played their best ball of the season way back in early November, when they reeled off six straight wins. But they haven't won more than four in a row since, and their swoon was huge in March, when they lost 10 of 12 in one stretch and finished the month 5-10 -- their worst March in a decade.
A home loss to Boston on Friday dropped Philadelphia seven games below .500, the Sixers' lowest point since ending the 2003-04 season 16 games below .500 in their first year of the post-Larry Brown era. They rebounded to finish four games above .500 last season before losing to Detroit in five games in the first round, and the thinking was that the Sixers would surely show some further improvement in their first season under Mo Cheeks.
Instead, they've been worse than mediocre -- at least until their last three games at Chicago, at home against Washington and now on the road vs. New Jersey.
But if the Sixers can't get some help elsewhere while finishing strong enough in their final four games against the Heat, Magic, Nets and Bobcats, changes -- it's safe to expect they'll be major, not minor -- will be forthcoming.
"This year is not about Allen or Chris or Kyle or Sam, it's about how collectively as a unit they haven't jelled like they should have," King said. "There's no reason to point blame on any player or coach. If you're going to look at anybody, it's me."
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LeBron James hits the deck after spraining his left ankle late in the third quarter in a loss to the Pistons. "It's sprained pretty good, but nothing serious," said James, who had 22 points on 8-of-18 shooting. "You never really know until the next day, but I've had them before, and this is nothing that bad."
The starting lineup for Sioux Falls against the Gary Steelheads on Wednesday? Try again -- it was the lineup Chicago used to climb back into a must-win road game in Atlanta. With key players such as Luol Deng, Darius Songaila and Chris Duhon out of the lineup and all Scott Skiles' starters either struggling or in foul trouble, Skiles turned to that unit while trailing by seven in the final minutes of the first half.
And it worked like a charm. Chicago closed the period on a 10-3 run to tie the game, behind two buckets by Basden and two by Schenscher -- including an improbable sweeping hook in the paint by the big Aussie. From that point, the Bulls took over in the third quarter when the starters regained their shooting touch, then hung on for a 96-90 win.
And so it goes with Skiles, who seems able to coax maximum effort out of nearly everybody (well, except Tim Thomas). In this case, it was three players on 10-day contracts and two others barely making above the minimum. The combined salary for all five players is less than what Atlanta pays backup point guard Tyronn Lue ... yet they helped Chicago grab a key win that might end up putting it in the playoffs.
-- John Hollinger
• Bucks G Charlie Bell, who came into the game with 12 consecutive double-digit performances after having just 10 in the first 65 contests, was scoreless in the win over the Wizards. ... Wizards F Caron Butler missed his fourth game with a sprained right thumb. Coach Eddie Jordan said he hoped Butler will return against Cleveland on Sunday, at the latest. ... The Wizards and Bucks meet again in Washington on Tuesday in Milwaukee's season finale. The Wizards finale is the next night at Detroit. ... Wizards C Etan Thomas made his eighth start of the season after missing two games with a sprained back.
• Allen Iverson scored 40 or more points for the 15th time this season. He reached 40 points and 10 assists for the fifth time. ... After giving up 100 points or more in one of 14 games, New Jersey has allowed more than 100 in four of its last five games. ... Jason Collins (right knee bruise) missed the game for New Jersey, as did F Antoine Wright (left quad strain). ... Sixers G Kevin Ollie missed his third straight game with a right quad strain ... Vince Carter extended his club-record string of games with 20 or more points to 23, tying a personal high he reached twice while playing for the Toronto Raptors.
• Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson was showing around new assistant GM Daryl Morey before the Timberwolves game. Morey, hired April 3, previously worked as the Boston Celtics' senior vice president of operations and will succeed Dawson after next season.
-- The Associated Press
The Bulls kept pace with the contenders for a playoff berth, holding on to the No. 8 seed with a 96-90 win over Atlanta.
Bulls Keep Pace
Terrence Vaccaro/ NBAE via Getty Images
Jason Kidd and Allen Iverson try to get their hands on the ball. The Sixers won, but they would be out of the playoffs if the season ended today because Chicago holds the tiebreak advantage.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
My preseason MVP pick was LeBron James, and that one is looking better with each passing day. His Cavaliers were running so hot and cold through the first four months of the season that James was getting overlooked in the MVP debate, an omission for which I was as guilty as anyone as I focused my attention on Chauncey Billups, then Dirk Nowitzki, then Tony Parker and Steve Nash. But with James leading the Cavs to 11 victories in their last 12 games and scoring at least 30 in the last nine, I believe he and his team are making just enough of a push at just the right time to make that prediction a possible winner, too.
For Rookie of the Year, I went with Sarunas Jasikevicius, and this is where my powers of foretelling the future begin to take a dive.
Derreck (Veneta, Ore.): C'mon Jim, I know it's a touchy subject, but do you feel any vindication seeing how the Sixers have performed this year with basically the same roster as you had last season?
Jim O'Brien: I really don't think I needed to feel vindicated. We took a team that won 33 games the year before and won 43 and got them into the playoffs. What is interesting is that Billy King is starting to realize his young players are not as good as he thought they were. When we took over in Philly and he told me of his opinion of all his young players, I did not agree that they were nearly as good as he thought they were. Defense is hurting them badly. We were 11th in field goal defense last year and now they are 22nd. It is also interesting to see that the fans have turned their backs on what is happening.
Joe (NYC): Jim what can the Kings do in playoffs? I think they can beat Phoenix and take SA to 7 games.
Jim O'Brien: The Kings are a dangerous team. But they are not in the Spurs category. As the playoffs roll around, a lot of us want a dark horse to step up and pull a George Mason. It doesn't happen much at the college level and even less at the pro level.
Doug (Cleveland): Has Mike James matured into being a high-quality guard or is he just an average player on a bad team? Will he stay in Toronto either way?
Jim O'Brien: I take great pride in watching Mike's success because we gave him his real start in Boston. He is a wonderful young man. He loves the game and wants to be in the gym all day. I love what he is doing from a scoring standpoint. His deficiencies are he is a score-first, pass-second point guard and his defense is not strong. He will get the mid-level. If he wants more, I don't see the Raptors keeping him.