They had lost three games in a row and nine of their last 13. Coach Doug Collins had promised wholesale changes to the starting lineup if his team got off to another slow start, as it had in the previous game against Orlando.
And then Andre Iguodala, their best player, had possibly endangered team chemistry with comments he made in a recent magazine article that came across as critical of his teammates.
Clogged into the close confines of the visitor's locker room at the TD Garden, though, the Sixers seemed far from apprehensive toward each other or about the upcoming game. As players sprawled on training tables or counted the minutes to tip-off in their stalls, teammates joked around them. No locker room is a fun place for a team on a losing streak, but the visitor's room had a much more positive vibe than it had a week earlier, when the solemn Heat's road woes continued with a loss to the Celtics.
"Our chemistry is awesome," Sixers point guard Jrue Holiday said. "This is probably one of the closest teams I've ever been on. Everybody in here looks out for each other. We make fun of each other and all that, but we always have each other's backs. It's been like that from day one."
The "make fun of each other" part might be what so few people outside the locker room understand. Iguodala seemed to be singling out Lou Williams, the team's leading scorer, when he questioned the guard's defensive ability in the aforementioned article.
"It makes no sense to me why so many good scorers can't defend," Iguodala was quoted as saying. "Like Lou Williams. He's one of the toughest guys to guard in the league, but he can't guard anybody. I don't get that."
In print, the quote looked like an unnecessary shot at a teammate. To Holiday, it was one of the lighthearted jabs the Sixers players like to take at each other.
"That was really misconstrued," Holiday said. "What was said was really playful. Everybody on our team didn't take it the way everybody else took it or the way it was portrayed to be. Nobody's taking shots or anything."
This is what happens when teams are losing. Comments and incidents that would be laughed off, or even taken as evidence of a team's closeness, are retroactively conditioned to explain the slide. Fans do not like to hear that shots simply are not falling or that opponents have changed the way they play.
Instead, there must be some personality flaw, some beer-and-chicken explanation for the losses piling up. Just across the hall in the Celtics' locker room, an almost identical situation to Iguodala's comments was played up as proof of the Celtics' strong chemistry.
Celtics forward Brandon Bass had his worst shooting performance of the season in Saturday's win over the Pacers, missing all six shots he took. In Sunday's walkthrough, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said the players ribbed Bass, saying he should be open for his deadly elbow jump shot against the Sixers — "if he can hit it."
Bass scored 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting against the Sixers and laughed at the pregame exchange.
"We've got a veteran group," Bass said. "All the guys in here have had nights like that, so they understand. They know the type of player I am and they know I'll bounce back."
It is tempting to try to find a deeper reason for the Sixers' slide when it is fairly easy to explain how they have gone 14-20 since a 15-6 start. At the All-Star break, Philadelphia held first place in the Atlantic Division and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. They have since fallen to the edge of missing the playoffs entirely.
The Sixers played close to perfectly for the first month of the season, shooting to the top of the charts in field-goal percentage defense and turnovers committed. Center Spencer Hawes, arguably their best facilitator on offense, was dishing out of the high post and playing solid defense. Iguodala filled his role as a lockdown defender and highlight-caliber finisher on the break. When they needed a clutch shot, Williams delivered.
Since Hawes went down the first time with an Achilles injury in mid-January, the Sixers began a slow, yet steady slide. Their field-goal percentage allowed in the second half of the season is 43 percent, which would still place them in the top third of defenses in the league, but needs to be better to prop up an offense that is sixth from the bottom in points scored per game.
Rivers shrugged when asked what is different about the Sixers since their impressive start.
"Shots going in and not going in," he said.
Collins did not anticipate the Sixers being flawless all year. He is close with Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski — Collins' son, Chris, is an associate head coach with the Blue Devils — and he recalled something Krzyzewski said after winning one of his two consecutive national championships in 1991 and 1992. Asked if Duke would defend its title the following year, with the same team back in the fold, Kryzewski corrected the questioner.
"It's not the same team," Krzyzewski said, as Collins recalled. "It's the same players, but it's not the same team, because everyone changes over the course of a year."
"We've had some guys change their play," Collins continued. "And it's changed our team. I think we're still trying to adjust to that, and that's what I'm trying to get my hands on to try to make it better."
After Collins concluded, he walked off to the side with a few longtime familiar faces from the media, discussing basketball until about five minutes before tip-off. Collins adores the game and could talk about it all day long, and his players seem to be just fine with one another. Good feelings don't help anyone hit a jump shot, though.
The Sixers went out Sunday and lost to the Celtics by 24 points.
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