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Sunday basketball notes

76ers take early lead, but are they for real?

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / February 5, 2012
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A city that cherishes superstars when they win and berates them when they lose, Philadelphia has been rather noncommittal on these new 76ers. Of course, fans were once accustomed to Chamberlain, Erving, Barkley, and Iverson. The current roster has no real star power.

The rest of the NBA may beg to differ. Philadelphia, not Boston or New York, is the leader of the Atlantic Division. Overlooked before the season after a successful playoff appearance in 2010-11, the 76ers have developed into a potential Eastern Conference factor faster than expected.

They have raced out to the fourth-best record in the conference with a collection of youngsters, aging veterans, and the much-criticized Andre Iguodala, who was never able to pick up the mantle left behind by Allen Iverson but now doesn’t have to.

The strength in their attack is versatility. Eight players average at least 9 points per game, and 11 players average at least 11 minutes. Coach Doug Collins has battered opponents with depth and variety.

Philadelphia’s leading scorer comes off the bench: Lou Williams, drafted out of high school as an Iverson clone, has found a home as a volume scorer in a reserve role.

The resurrection of the 76ers comes with a change in philosophy. In a town that has high-profile sports stars in Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson, Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard, and Claude Giroux, the NBA team has played in near-anonymity until last week when the Bulls and Heat came to town.

“The competition here is very stiff, because virtually every team is very, very good," said 76ers president Rod Thorn. “I would have said last year, during the early part of the year, that the fans had sort of turned the Sixers off. The Sixers had had a really poor year the year before [27-55] and had really lost a lot of cachet they had with their fans.

“When Doug Collins came in as the coach last year, one of the first things he said was that he was going to try to change the culture. Philly is a kind of city where you need a team that is tough, willing to do all the little things to help you win games."

“As we started to win games, we started to get some more attention. And we were very hopeful that would carry over to this year.”

The 76ers are 22d in the league in attendance at 14,999 per game. The locals are not yet convinced.

“Well, we had a lockout," Thorn said. “We were starting over. In the past couple of weeks, as people have seen that we have built on what we had last year, our crowds are getting bigger and we’re getting a lot more attention."

After facing Atlanta last night, the 76ers will play the Lakers, Spurs, and Clippers this week, which should help NBA observers determine how much of a threat they are.

Williams may be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, and the 76ers have also won with defense, rebounding, and steady point guard play from Jrue Holiday, one of the league’s more overlooked young players.

Elton Brand, though he may not prove to be worth his $90 million deal, has been a stabilizing force in the paint.

Iguodala has been heavily chided for his large contract and lack of All-Star appearances. He is a multi-skilled player with freakish athleticism, but not on the level of the game’s great players.

He has heard those criticisms for years and spent considerable time on the trading block, but he has carved out a niche with his all-around play, particularly defense.

“He can do anything on the court,’’ Thorn said. “He’s a very smart player.

“Probably the weakest part of Andre’s game is his shooting, and over the course of time, he’s more than anybody else been the go-to guy late in ballgames. He’s certainly had some success with it, but probably not as much as he would like.

“Now, he doesn’t have to do that every night. I think it takes a little pressure away from him. Now I think he realizes we have others who can do good things, too.

“To me, he’s gotten a bad rap here. From where I’m sitting, contracts should have nothing to do with it, because you’re not paying yourself. It’s not like he signed himself. Appreciate him for what he is.’’

The 76ers were blasted by the Heat Friday night, so there is definitely more work to do. And Thorn points out that they have capitalized on a home-heavy schedule against some lesser opponents. This week should show where the 76ers are in their climb back to prominence.

“There’s different ways to win in this league,’’ Thorn said. “The sum of the parts is better than the individual parts. That’s the way we have to do it.

“For me, it’s fun to see a team do it like this. It’s a breath of fresh air.’’

HOPE FOR CLEVELAND

So far, Irving right on target

The Celticsgot a long look at rookie Kyrie Irving over a 72-hour period last week, as the Cavaliers point guard beat them with a layup Jan. 29 at TD Garden, then spearheaded a furious rally that almost brought Cleveland another win two days later.

There was mystery surrounding Irving when Cleveland made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2011. While he was an impact player during his short time at Duke — he played in just 11 games because of a foot injury — there was uncertainty about his ability to compete at the NBA level.

But the Cavaliers, desperately trying to move away from the LeBron James debacle, have another potential franchise cornerstone whose transition to the pros has been flawless. Through 21 games, Irving leads NBA rookies with 18.0 points per game, to go with 5.0 assists and 49.8 percent shooting.

Not only has he adequately run Byron Scott’s Princeton offense, he has developed a knack for taking — and making — big shots. During Cleveland’s comeback against the Celtics last Tuesday, Irving canned a running layup against three defenders.

Six weeks from his 20th birthday, he is making the Cavaliers’ rebuilding plan more feasible.

“He’s young and I just think he plays the right way,’’ said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “Cleveland made a good pick. He’s a terrific player.

“I just like how he plays. He’s really serious about the game on the floor and he makes flashy plays but he’s not trying to be flashy. He makes those plays because that’s what the game dictates.

“To me, in some ways, although he’s flashier than the throwback guards, he is one of those.’’

Rivers, whose son Austin Rivers was a prep phenom, got an extensive opportunity to watch Irving during his AAU days.

“He comes to the game to compete,’’ Rivers said. “He doesn’t come to the game to put on a show. He understands it’s a competition. He’s feisty. Chris Paul is like that, too. They’re just feisty, tough guards who compete.’’

There was far more pressure on Irving than other rookies because of his No. 1 overall status and the comparisons to James, who became a superstar and two-time MVP after being taken first in 2003. James made a bitter departure from Cleveland in 2010 to sign with Miami, and that taste lingered over the city for more than a year.

But Irving is sweetening things for the fans.

“I want to become a leader, but more on the example side,’’ he said. “Every game, my teammates just tell me to compete and that’s what I do.

“There have always been doubts about my game throughout my whole entire career, my high school and short college career. Coming to the NBA is about motivation for me.’’

He knows there were questions as to whether he made the right decision to declare for the draft after his injury-shortened freshman season in college.

“I was a high draft pick, played only 11 games, Cavs fans didn’t know what to see, NBA fans didn’t know what to expect,’’ he said.

“I knew I made the right decision. “I used the lockout to the best of my advantage, to be one of the most prepared rookies. That’s what I wanted to do, is hit the ground running.’’

Scott, who played with one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Magic Johnson, as well as Mark Jackson, had no hesitation about praising his rookie.

“For a rookie, and all the stuff he’s had to learn in this short period of time, and not having the type of basketball experience that most rookies come in with, I think he’s adapted well,’’ said Scott.

“He’ll continue to get better. He’s handling the situation pretty well. He has a long way to go in a lot of departments. Right now, he’s on a very good pace of being exactly what we think he could be.’’

RUST IS SHOWING

Lockout effect visible in spots

The Eastern Conference is beginning to round into form at the one-third mark of the season, with expected contenders Miami and Chicago rising toward the top, while downtrodden teams such as Charlotte, Washington, and New Jersey sink toward another lottery appearance.

But the 76ers and Pacers have made surprising splashes, while the Knicksand Celtics have struggled. The effects of the lockout are surfacing, with a rash of injuries and inconsistent play.

Going into the season, eight teams were seen by many as playoff locks: Chicago, Miami, Indiana, Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta, Orlando, and New York. Of them, only the Knicks are not in playoff position right now.

With the Knicks struggling mightily, the eighth spot appears to be the most intriguing race, with Milwaukee, Cleveland and even New Jersey having an opportunity to nab it.

“It just feels like Miami and Chicago is a foregone conclusion in the conference finals,’’ said TNT analyst Steve Kerr. “Obviously, so much can happen injury-wise this season because of the schedule. If LeBron [James] or [Dwyane] Wade went down, there could be changes.

“But assuming teams stay healthy, it would be really difficult to see anybody other than Boston crack that echelon at the top. Boston would have the best chance.

“There are some interesting teams in the East. Philly looks like they are really making some strides. Indiana is a better team now.

“Of course, Chicago and Miami just look like they are head and shoulders above everybody.’’

The lockout had a definite effect on teams that were older or entered the season with several new players. The Celtics fit both categories.

“I felt before the season started that the teams with the advantage with this lockout schedule are the ones that combined continuity and youth,’’ Kerr said. “Chicago and Miami fit that bill. They have the same continuity from last year, the same coaches, the success, really good blueprint, and a roster full of young talent that can withstand the rigors of the season.

“And if you look at the West, you could say the same thing about Denver, Portland, and Oklahoma City. Teams that have young talent that’s been there and probably able to deal with the grind. It’s a big factor for Miami and Chicago for sure.’’

The basketball hasn’t been pretty this season — as expected — but it has become apparent that the teams with the most cohesion and chemistry have flourished after the abbreviated training camp. The question is whether those disheveled teams will catch up by April.

ETC.

Finish line for Hughes?

The career of Larry Hughes may be over after he was released by the Magic last week so they could sign someone named Ish Smith. Hughes left St. Louis University after his freshman season in 1998 and played 13 seasons for eight teams. Hughes never quite reached his lottery pick potential but was a strong defender during his years playing with the Wizards and Cavaliers.

The book on Brooks

Another player to watch on the free agent market in the next month is former Rocket and Sun Aaron Brooks. He went from being a rookie sensation with the Rockets to being traded for Goran Dragic a few years later. The Suns did not pick up the option on his contract, and he bolted for China during the lockout. He can shoot from distance and create his own shot, although his leadership at point guard has been questioned.

Layups

Toronto coach Dwane Casey is disappointed in the recent play of forward Amir Johnson, who has appeared confused with his role since Andrea Bargnani went out with a calf injury. The Raptors thought Johnson may have a breakout year after signing a $35 million contract two years ago . . . Jimmer Fredette experienced the first DNP-coach’s decision of his NBA career Thursday in Sacramento’s victory over Portland. Fredette is shooting just 36 percent from the field. His minutes have been soaked up by former University of Washington standout Isaiah Thomas, the final pick of the 2011 draft. Thomas has scored in double figures for four straight games serving as Tyreke Evans’s backup at point guard . . . Teams are taking note of what’s happening in Detroit, where the Pistons had money to spend in 2009 and used a combined $80 million on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. Villanueva has played all of three minutes this season because of injuries. Like Villanueva, Gordon has hardly been the impact player the Pistons expected. Team president Joe Dumars invested in Villanueva and Gordon hoping they would develop into cornerstones, but he probably should have saved his money for the summer of 2010. The Pistons entered last night’s game 5-20 under new coach Lawrence Frank.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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