The Philadelphia 76′ers and the New York Knicks have not had the best of seasons…which seemed only right both teams came into the contest with identical 23-43 records. These are the dog days of the NBA season and when teams have nothing more to play for besides evaluating talent for the upcoming year, fans get the picture. There were only 13,563 in attendance and when the Wachovia Center is that low in capacity, actual conversations can be made out as the teams go up and down the floor. It made for a depressing performance for the home team as the Knicks defeated the Sixers 94-84.
Pregame, Eddie Jordan stressed getting the ball down low to Elton Brand. With Louis Williams out with lower back pain, Thaddeus Young was moved into the starting lineup at small forward…which made Andre Iguodala the two guard.
He told me he’s pleased with the team’s effort the last few games: “We’re fightin’ man. We’re in the game…we’re emotionally into it…we’re physically into it. We have some liabilities, but we are fighting our butts off. We want to play better. We want to win games. There are no moral victories. We aren’t satisfied with playing hard. We wanna win.”
I noticed Willie Green is getting after it and the veteran is doing whatever it takes to get his team on the winning track. When speaking to him pregame, I could hear a leader behind his words…specifically in regards to effort:
“We are doing what we are supposed to be doing. Every game should be a dogfight. That’s what we need to make it in order to put ourselves in position to win. It’s good to see us going out there and having a flow. We wanna get some wins too. We are going to try and get some wins and continue to play hard the rest of the season and just finish it out.”
The Sixers have been a playoff contender each of the three years I’ve covered the team. Since Willie’s been here through thick and thin, I wanted to get a sense of where he is mentally: “It’s always difficult when you are losing. Nobody likes to lose. It’s tough for an organization and the team, but you try to pull together and go out there and realize it’s a blessing to be able to go out there on the floor and play. Anytime you get the opportunity, you go out there and make the best of it, try to have fun with the game and play it the way it’s supposed to be played.”
Prophetic…Willie Green’s 15 and Jrue Holiday’s 12 paced the Sixers in the first half. The effort everyone spoke of was there and the crowd was appreciative. The Knicks could have gave up on the road, but didn’t. Dalino Galinari had 11, Wilson Chandler 10 and Tracey McGrady’s 9 led the squad. Philly shot 50% from the floor in the half and led by 11 heading into the tunnel.
This is not something unusual as the Sixers have been getting off to hot starts recently. The problem with Philadelphia is sustaining consistency a full 48 minutes.
New York outscored Philly 29-14 in the third quarter. The Knicks shot a blistering 57.9% (11-19) in the period as opposed to the Sixers abysmal 24% on 6-25 shooting. New York hit 4-7 threes while Philadelphia missed 6 of 7.
An 11 point lead became a 73-69 deficit heading into the 4th.
Since promising point guard Jrue Holiday is beginning to show his what he can do guiding the team, the pressure of facilitating the offense was taken out of Iguodala’s hands.
It just wasn’t Andre’s night.
He shot 5-22 and scored a mere 14 points, but did have a career high 17 rebounds. Holiday on the hand had a nice all around game with 18 points, 8 boards and 6 assists.
Michael Tillery: Jrue, you had a pretty good game, what happened to the team flow in terms of sustaining second half momentum?
Jrue Holiday: Just coming out the third quarter, we didn’t have that pep we really needed to carry from the first half.
MT: You are a young point guard with talent. How can you somehow lead this team into better performances?
JH: I need to come out the 3rd quarter and ignite the intensity. We need to start off where we left it.
MT: What are you learning about your game through these stretches?
JH: I’m learning to be aggressive on both sides of the ball.
Jordan also spoke of not falling into Mike D’Antoni’s trap of firing up threes at will. When Tracey McGrady hit 3-3 in the first quarter, that all went out the window. The threes began to rain on dribble drive kick outs and before you knew it, the Sixers were 6-25 for the game from behind the arc while the Knicks were 11-25.
I asked how could such a shooting performance happen from behind the line after stressing pregame his team would not fall into the Knicks philosophy:
“They shoot quick threes. They shoot a ton of threes…more than anyone in the league I think. I thought we had open rhythm threes. Our three point shooter Jason (Kapono)…Andre, Drew…Willie had mid range shots I thought…drive to the basket…we just couldn’t establish an inside game.
Speaking of the inside game, Sammy Dalembert hit half of his 8 shots and all three of his free throws for 11 points. He also had a game high 18 rebounds and 3 blocks.
Elton Brand was held to 3-8 shooting for just 7 points. I asked him about somehow sparking positive energy in practices: “Yeah, yeah.We need to protect our home court better. We need to play better at home. That’s the main thing. We’re not bad on the road actually…top 12-13 teams in the NBA away from here. We need to get together, talk it out and finish the season strong. We have the talent to do it and play the right way.”
Willie Green spoke of the Sixers not coming out in the second half with intensity and a sense of urgency. He gave the Knicks credit for playing a better half than his team did. The Knicks hit shots and the Sixers didn’t. It’s as simple as that. They fought hard and played hard, but still came up short. He said the team is hanging their heads a little bit after teams come back and make expected runs.
I asked him what’s needed: “It’s not one specific play. I think it’s a combination of continuing to come out in the second half. When they make runs, we have to stay patient, stay calm and start executing on both ends of the floor. Those are the things that are gonna get us over the hump.”
I told him he had it going…
“There was a momentum swing. I had it going. The team had it going and in the second half…they got it going. As a team we couldn’t get it going…including myself. My teammates looked for me. We were struggling making shots. It’s a mental game we have to settle down, call a timeout and come out with more energy.”
Toney Douglas, the rookie out of Florida State, ignited his team with 20 points and 7 assists. It was a solid performance on both ends. After he stole a pass and subsequently scored to put his team up one after being down since the end of the half, you could sense the relief in his reaction despite it being only the third quarter.
He told me about his game, getting back into it and the Sixers shooting 25 threes: “I wanted to leave it all out on the floor. I never want to come into the locker room and say dang, I wish I did that or I wish I did this…or I didn’t play hard enough…especially on defense.
We had to get one stop at a time. That’s how you have to look at it. Make a stop, score. Make another stop, score and then you get back into the game. We all made stops which converted into easy buckets and we went from there.
It’s good they shot that many threes because we are getting out and running…getting easy buckets. I love to run. I’m going to push it so hard, I’m gonna make defenses help and then I’ll kick it out.”
The player I was most impressed with besides Douglas was Dalino Gallinari. It was more than his 21 points. His stroke is ridiculous. When this kid consistently adds the dribble drive to his game, he will be an all star. Straight up. Unlimited talent and you can see it in his eyes he wants to show everyone just how talented he is.
MT: As you mature while your team is not playing so well, what’s the mindset?
Dalino Gallinari: We’ve been talking and watching a lot of video with the coaches to see which are my weaknesses and work on them in practice. That’s what I’ve been trying to concentrate on. Last year when I came into the league I just played 28 games and was just considered a shooter. Coming to the USA, I didn’t. I knew I had other game. We are trying to get back on that level.
MT: You are a very talented player. Where did you learn how to shoot?
DG: I was in the gym a lot. Especially when I was younger I practiced a lot. If you want to get better you have to want to get in the gym and improve on what you don’t do so well. Try to produce in the game what you do so well in practice.
MT: Who was that guy you grew up watching?
DG: I have to thank my coaches for sure. I was watching a lot of NBA and Michael Jordan like everybody. My knowledge of the game? Practice and practice with my coaches. The European style is all about using your teammates. If you don’t know how to play the game, you are not going to play…especially overseas.
MT: When did you know you were going to be standing here answering questions from reporters?
DG: When I finished my last season in Milan and we lost the semi-final, after the playoffs I decided to talk to my parents and my agents and said what are we gonna do next year? We decided to try and get over here. It was a long process of choosing the right agent and then coming here doing all the workouts, getting into the draft and I made it.
MT: Explain how you got to know Mike D’Antoni and his system for the people who don’t know.
DG: It is a great situation for me. It’s such a small world because Mike played with my Dad for nine years. I knew already what game and style the team had, so I thought it was perfect for me. I’m blessed to be here.
MT: Who was that European player you watched growing up?
DG: I watched Sasha Danilovic and Toni Kukoc.
MT: I asked because I’m trying to get out of you where you got that stroke from. It’s pretty. One of the prettiest I’ve ever seen. Even your air balls look as if they are gonna fall like water.
DG: Since I was like eleven or twelve or thirteen I was practicing like three times a day. I expected a lot even back then. It helped a lot. I grew taller in nature and here I am.
MT: What are your short term goals besides helping your team win? What do you want to do individually in this league?
DG: I want to reach my strongest point as a player. I want to be as good as I can. I have to work out and do what my coach tells me to every time. I don’t have a motive or a specific player that I want to be like. I just want to concentrate on myself to help this franchise as I can because I love it here and want to spend my entire NBA career here.
Almost done. I wanted to contrast Dalino’s rise to path of Bill Walker. The high school teammate of O.J. Mayo in Huntington, West Virgina is a tremendous athlete. One can’t be sure if he’ll be able to rise like he did before he ruptured his acl in 2007, but his hops are still above average. The last time I spoke to him was when Boston came to town in 2009. He and Gabe Pruitt were young talent trying to break Boston’s rotation during a championship year. He and Eddie House were traded at the break to Boston in exchange for Nate Robinson. Time for a fresh start and I hope he gets the opportunity to show what he can do because Walker can go. He and Michael Beasely were a monster tandem at Kansas State. Now he’s in Gotham…
MT: The last time we spoke you and Gabe were pups. You are here now. Whatcha gonna do?
Bill Walker: Ball out man! You know what I do. That’s what I’ve done every where I’ve been and as I get better hopefully this will be the spot for me to show and prove. I just want to get better and help the team win.
MT: Were you happy when you knew you were being traded here?
BW: Definitely happy. I knew i would have the opportunity to play here. I’m around coaches who damn near come from where I’m from so it’s a good situation for me.
MT: Obviously you want to finish strong these last 17 games or so…
BW: There’s a lot of stuff in my game I want to try out but sometimes you gotta pull back. I just want to do everything everyone thinks I can’t do. They say I can’t shoot and this and that. I’m using all the negativity as motivation.
MT: I was out in Cleveland and I saw you put up some good numbers in a half against the Cavs. You did your thing that night. Is that all it is in the NBA is getting the opportunity? I remember you chompin’ at the bit on the C’s bench.
BW: I think it is. It’s more mental than people think. Guys wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have ability but are they mentally ready to be put in a position they are not comfortable? A year where they are not playing but working out every day and that’s all it is. I give kudos to Doc Rivers. He told me every day to be ready. Stay professional because you never know when your chance is coming. I believed that. I woke up every day thinking today is my opportunity. When it finally came, I felt like I was ready. It’s paying off so far.
MT: What’s the craziest thing about playing in New York?
BW: Just being in Madison Square Garden. It’s great! I remember watching Ewing and all them…Allan Houston vs Tim Duncan and the Spurs in the Finals? What?
BW: There’s a lot of history.
MT: I’ve asked you this question a few times over the years but what are you looking forward to as you become a veteran NBA player?
BW: I’m just trying to get better. To go out there and put my name next to players I used to watch coming up. There are a lot of great players in this league. I just want to be at the top. That’s what I work for.
Jonathan Bender last played in the NBA in 2006. He’s been plagued by nagging knee injuries and never quite lived up to the potential he had for himself. I remember initially seeing Bender at a holiday season tournament in Delaware…Slam Dunk to the Beach… with my son Gaston and a friend Barry Bell. Despite other great players present, Bender was definitely the best. It seemed like he was up near the box on every rebound. To get back into the NBA after so much time off is remarkable and as you read here, his life is more than about just basketball.
MT: Congratulations on getting back in the league. Great accomplishment. Talk about the road back and why you came back.
Jonathan Bender: It was tough. It was always in my head to come back. I wanted to try it one more time and I’m here. It’s been a tough road as far as exercising, working out and doing everything I need to do to keep my knees in order. Once I stopped I knew I was gonna try it one more time. At least once…I was just to young to hang ‘em up…so this is that time.
MT: You’re knees forced you to retire…
JB: Yeah, I had to leave.
MT: You are on a team that’s definitely in transition. What’s different about the league now as opposed to then?
JB: There are little differences. There’s a lot of different guys. I’m older now. I’m in a different position because a lot of guys call me older. When I was in Indiana I was a young kid. Definite change of culture.
MT: What’s the difference in D’Antoni’s style as opposed to what you were probably used to?
JB: It’s running. There’s not a lot of beating your body up. Moving without the ball, with the ball, cutting, getting open shots.
MT: Is there less of a priority on defense in this league compared to the league you played in earlier?
JB: Some sort.
MT: What’s the difference?
JB: Those old school guys were a different caliber. You had Dale Davis…Reggie Miller…all those old guys. Real tough heads. Especially tough on defense. I think everybody was tough on defense. Now it’s more offensive minded. Everybody runs more free offensively.
MT: Obviously you aren’t just happy to be back. Are you proud of yourself?
JB: Yeah. Definitely. That was my goal to get back and I’m here.
MT: Can you describe the moment when you got that call?
JB: Well…you know…I called them. I made some calls. I was always in touch with Donnie (Walsh) while I was away telling him I was going to come back. I got cold feet and I stopped. I stopped before training camp. I waited two more months. Trained some more and just got my mind right.
MT: Were you really excited?
JB: No, not really. It was more of a moment in concentration. Ok…my goal was accomplished…all that. There was a lot of hard work. I wanted to prove every critic wrong that I could.
MT: Now that you are here and thinking more about the present as well as the future, what do you plan to do after basketball?
JB: All the stuff I was doing when I wasn’t playing basketball. I will be doing that the rest of my life. Charity stuff. Working on my nonprofit. Low income housing. Getting youth to understand where they are and where they need to be.
MT: Can you be more specific? People need to know this.
JB: Yes, I have the Jonathan Bender Foundation
in New Orleans. Right after Hurricane Katrina, we rebuilt some school libraries. Put a lot of families in homes. Developed some properties. I’m looking to get back to that.
MT: You ever think of being a coach, GM or broadcaster?
JB: I haven’t really thought about it but possibly. I don’t think I would be a good broadcaster. I don’t know about that one. (We laugh) Probably a GM or something.
OK, this is it. Each game, I want to interview a fan as well as ask athletes reader questions. It all depends on the moment and while I’m not sure how this will develop, I want to make this happen because of the fan/athlete/organization disconnect that’s growing wider and wider still. If you see me at a game, get my attention and you could be the one. I got the side eye look for some sistas from Philly, so I hit the first person I saw and he was gracious enough to do this…Army SSG David Darois, who attended the game with his buddy, Robert Badua.
MT: Sup tough guy? What brings you here?
David Darois: I’ve been a Knicks fan since I was ten. I’m 30 years old. I moved to Pennsylvania when I was 13 and ended up playing in Madison Square Garden. When Patrick Ewing was traded, I stopped watching it because they weren’t any good.
MT: So what happened. What brings you here tonight if you don’t follow the sport as closely.
DD: I got free tickets. I’m in the military. I’m hoping next year we get LeBron, Bosh and whoever else.
MT: Do you like the way the sport is evolving? Wait…man you have Giants gear on and everything…you do know this is Philly right (we laugh)?
DD: I’m a one minded person. I will always love New York. Knicks, Rangers, Mets, Giants. Football is always the biggest sport of them all. Baseball is second and then hockey and basketball. The Knicks can move up though if they start winning. I’ve been alive since 1979. I saw the Mets win in 1986…I’ve seen three Giants championships. I’ve seen one Rangers cup (yeah that one). I will not give up on any of my teams and I always support them. If they’re winning, yeah I’m gonna watch them more. I haven’t watched the Knicks live since they gave up Ewing. He is my favorite New York Knick. My second was Mark Jackson.
MT(As I look over to Donnie Walsh who is sitting on the bench): Did you watch 30 for 30 on ESPN last night?
DD: Nah, I missed it.
MT: As a Knick fan, you have check that out. It’s called Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks.
DD: I love Reggie Miller the player, but I hate him as a Knicks killer.
MT: What do you remember vividly about Reggie?
DD: (You should see the look on his face. Mean, face all mashed up) I remember that 8 second spa he had in the playoffs. I was a teenager.
MT: Did you think the game was over?
DD: Oh yeah! I never thought a game was over until it was over after that. I like David Lee because he has my first name. I was mad they got rid of Nate Robinson. Hopefully he wins in Boston. He is good. I know we’re clearing space for LeBron and Bosh. I like D’Antoni as well.
It was also a night former Sixers dancers were back so they could perform on the Wachovia Center floor one more time. It was great to see the happiness on the ladies faces before and after a great halftime show. It was the 1999-2008 Sixers Dancers Alumni time to shine and one sentiment I noticed was most of the ladies missed so much what they loved to do and there was a little sadness when it was all over.