PHILADELPHIA – With finally some direction from above, the Philadelphia 76ers have transformed themselves from NBA laughingstock into a team that’s .500 over its past six games after Monday’s 109-99 victory over the Timberwolves at Wells Fargo Center.
The Wolves, meanwhile, have lost seven of eight and three of their past four over two seasons against a 76ers team that tied the NBA record for worst start by losing its first 18 games this season. Philadelphia was 1-30 two weeks ago, about the same time the Wolves started on their current slide. Now the Sixers are 4-33 to the Wolves’ 12-23.
“They’ve won four games all year,” Wolves forward Shabazz Muhammad said. “The message should be clear by now that we’ve got to go out there and play harder.”
At the league’s urging, the 76ers hired longtime NBA executive and Team USA leader Jerry Colangelo last month as a “special adviser” to GM Sam Hinkie, a move that gave a rudderless franchise credibility and new life. Colangelo has brought former Phoenix and New York coach Mike D’Antoni on board as associate head coach to Brett Brown, struck a deal with New Orleans for point guard Ish Smith and on Monday signed Elton Brand, 36, for a much-needed veteran presence.
Smith’s 21-point, 11-assist, three-steal performance proved vital Monday.
Afterward, Wolves interim head coach Sam Mitchell’s voice — booming but measured — seemed to seep through brick and mortar as he scolded his team inside its locker room more than 20 minutes after the final buzzer. Meeting with the media just moments later, he was calm, steady and quick to point out his team’s results against the Sixers these past 13 months.
He was unable to play the youth card Monday against an opponent that’s now tied with Portland as the NBA’s second-youngest team after it brought Brand back to Philadelphia. Only Milwaukee is younger. The Sixers got a valuable 22-minute, 16-point night from veteran Carl Landry, while Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Garnett each played 20 minutes or fewer and Kevin Martin didn’t play at all for the seventh consecutive game. Muhammad scored 20 points.
Mitchell chose competition as the night’s theme.
“It’s not about the loss, it’s about how you compete and we’ve got to do a better job of competing,” he said. “You’re going to lose some games, but you’ve just got to compete every second.”
His team failed at that Monday, particularly when the 76ers ratcheted their defense and blocked five shots during a fourth quarter when they outscored the Wolves 29-20.
Prince was asked if Mitchell stressed anything, particularly to his young players, other than competing after Monday’s loss.
“Nothing else beyond that,” Prince said. “You shouldn’t have to tell them anything. What should you tell them? I don’t necessarily worry about the losses piling up. I worry about guys’ mentality as far as how you respond after certain games. I’ve been on some teams where we’ve gone on some losing streaks but I knew what to expect from those guys, win or lose. Here, game to game, it just seems like you don’t know what to expect.
“Guys will have good games, bad games offensively. The key is when other teams are scoring on you at ease, getting 50 points in the paint. That has to bother you and right now it’s not bothering us.”