76ers hit the skids as losses mount
By DAN GELSTON
PHILADELPHIA (AP) Each home game, the Philadelphia 76ers take the court to an arena that is almost stuffed to capacity. Of all the changes that have hit the Sixers, having 17,000 or 18,000 fans in an arena by tip-off has cranked the volume and injected some life in what had been a dreary atmosphere.
Yes, some ticket-price slashing by new ownership has played a significant role.
So, too, did the Sixers' fast start, where they raced to 11 games over .500 and won 12 of their first 14 home games.
All-Star players. Elite teams. The kind of combinations fans pay to watch.
"I actually think (Sixers CEO) Adam Aron might have been behind this," coach Doug Collins said, smiling. "Get every good team in here so they could sell the building out."
The marquee teams are doing more than stuff the coffers. They are beating up a Sixers team that is in a big-time slump and losing the grip on first place in the Atlantic Division. The Sixers lost five straight games at the end of last month and have lost three of four entering Wednesday's game against Boston. The Celtics - and Jeremy Lin and the New York Knicks - have improved over that span, and suddenly, the division title up for grabs.
In a compact schedule necessitated by the lockout, the Sixers (22-17) have little time to rest and regroup. After the Celtics come to town, the Sixers play a five-game stretch that includes Utah, New York, Indiana, Miami and Chicago.
Especially when you consider the Sixers' lead over Boston in the Atlantic is down to 1 1/2 games. The Celtics play Houston on Tuesday night.
The Sixers went 4-3 during a seven-game stretch spanning January and February that Collins termed "Death Row" because of the quality of their opponents. After building a strong record early in the season against lesser competition, they beat Orlando, Chicago, Atlanta (on the road) and the Los Angeles Lakers. They lost to the Heat, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers - all teams winning at least 61 percent of their games.
"We got knocked back a little bit," Collins said. "It wasn't because we hadn't played well. It was because we weren't able to finish some games against some very good teams."
When Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams, Elton Brand, Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young are clicking, the Sixers are tough to beat. If they get their offense going early, look out: Philadelphia has 18 double-digit wins, and its 10 victories by 20-plus points are the most in the NBA.
The close ones are costing them.
Not since Allen Iverson left town, the first time around, have the Sixers had a true go-to scorer down the stretch. Iguodala has fans cringing when he fires up late-game 3-pointers. Williams has a knack for clutch shots, but isn't the best ball handler and can't always create his own shot.
Iguodala shot a 3-point airball and fired another 3 off the backboard in the final minutes of a five-point loss to the Bulls on Friday.
In a loss to the Bucks on Monday night, Williams hit a jumper to cut the lead to three with 1:47 left. He hit three free throws to tie the game with 1:11 left. But he dribbled the ball for several seconds before driving the lane and missing, then committed a foul on the rebound to give the ball back to the Bucks in a 97-93 loss.
"When it comes down to that last minute, two minutes, we can't really get over that hump," Williams said. "I don't know what to pinpoint, I just know that it's happening. I just know that it's a hump that we have to get over in order for us to get on a winning track."
The Sixers' inability to find a go-to scorer down the stretch has cost them. Each of their last four losses have come by six or less points. The Sixers are 2-8 this season in games decided by five or less.
"It's sort of been the story of our season," Collins said. "We haven't been able to get the critical basket or the critical stop."
Collins tried a new-look lineup against the Bucks, starting second-year guard Evan Turner in place of Jodie Meeks at shooting guard and swapping out center Lavoy Allen for Nik Vucevic. Turner, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft, missed 11 of 12 shots. The Sixers could get some help with center Spencer Hawes (strained left Achilles' tendon) expected to return to the lineup by the middle of the month. They are 10-15 without him.
The Sixers can expect another near-sellout against the Celtics. They are 17th in the NBA in attendance (16,658) and averaging more than 2,000 fans a night more than last season - when the listed number rarely matched all the filled seats in the 20,328-seat Wells Fargo Center.
The Sixers, of course, believe they can revert to the play that had them 20-9 on Feb. 13. Back then, they were the talk of the league ... and their town. Even part owner Will Smith brought his power family - wife Jada Pinkett Smith and son Jaden Smith - to the Wells Fargo, and sat courtside during an easy 89-72 win over the Charlotte Bobcats on Jan. 27.
Those were the days.
And they'll have to find those again if they want to win their first division title since 2000-01.
"We keep fighting," Brand said. "One day we're going to break through. I think we're going to peak at the right time and start winning these close games right before the playoffs."
AP Sports Writer Chris Jenkins in Milwaukee contributed to this story.
Updated March 6, 2012