|Mo Better News: Cool, calm, collected Cheeks has 76ers on verge of playoffs|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 03 April 2008 11:21|
Maurice Cheeks the nice guy, the coach who put his arm around a forgetful national anthem singer, a wide smile on his face, or his arms triumphantly raised in the air after winning the NBA title with 76ers in 1983.
Here's the Mo that's rarely seen and every bit as real as his cheery persona.
It's a late November game against Portland and the Sixers are getting crushed. The unruly home crowd has turned on their team and one dolt behind the bench pops off in true Philly fashion to one of the Sixers.
Cheeks whipped around and warned the fan, don't mess with my players.
``I said, 'I'll take it all, but don't yell at my players,''' Cheeks said.
Now it's halftime, and Cheeks is just as stern with his own team. He went into the locker room with Philly down 18 and told the Sixers he'd stick up for them, but they had to go out there and play their rears off.
``I'm not going to be standing out there taking, taking, taking and you don't play,'' Cheeks said.
Down 25 in the second quarter and 22 in the third, the Sixers stunned the Trail Blazers with a 92-88 victory. Nothing has really been the same in Philadelphia since that wildest and unlikeliest of comebacks.
Now the easygoing coach who never had it easy going in most of his first 2 1/2 years back in Philadelphia is about to enjoy his greatest reward:
The Philadelphia 76ers - a preseason pick to finish at the bottom of the East, and were limping toward another draft lottery after a 5-13 start - can clinch their first playoff spot since 2005 with a win Friday night at Atlanta.
Maybe Cheeks really is a Mr. Nice Guy, but he proved this season he's the right guy to lead the Sixers.
``There are times when I go yell at players and there are times when I put my arm around them,'' he said. ``My personality has been that way for 51 years and it's not going to change because I became the head coach. Players may have that perception, but they also have to see who I am when they come here.''
ntonio and that seventh straight loss only hours away, Cheeks pulled them all together for a pep talk.
``I don't where I got this from in myself that I know good things are going to happen, but I told them if you keep going out there doing the things you're doing, it's going to happen, it's going to turn around,'' he said.
The Sixers (38-37) have only two two-game losing streaks since Feb. 1. The Sixers had a five-game winning streak, two other four-game winning streaks, and have won 12 of their last 14 games at home in that span. They are stuck in a three-way tie with Toronto and Washington and could finish anywhere from fifth to eighth in the Eastern Conference with seven games left in the season.
While the Hawks take a five-game winning streak into Friday's game thanks to a lightweight stretch that included only one playoff team, the Sixers have won at Phoenix and Boston, and beat Dallas, San Antonio and Denver in Philadelphia over the last two months. They rallied from an 18-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win in mid-March at Chicago.
``They're the real thing,'' Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said. ``There's a lot of things that have to be answered yet because they haven't been there, but on a nightly basis, I don't see why they can't do whatever they need to do.''
Cheeks wondered if he'd even get to see the 76ers turn their season around when his friend and the man who brought him back to Philadelphia, team president Billy King, was fired in early December. The Sixers missed the playoffs in each of Cheeks' first two seasons and he was off to another poor start in the final year of his contract. With Ed Stefanski hired away from New Jersey to run the franchise and the Sixers mired near the bottom of the East, Cheeks honestly wondered if he was finished in Philadelphia after this season.
``It absolutely crossed my mind,'' he said. ``But I didn't allow it to play into me coming out here and not doing my job. Every day I came here I knew something was going to change. Everyday. In the back of my mind I said, 'yeah, probably my last year,' but I didn't allow that to affect me coming to work.''
If Cheeks wanted to make it work in Philly, he had to follow Stefanski's edict: Play the young kids.
First-round pick Thaddeus Young was inserted in the starting lineup, rookies and third-year vets like Jason Smith, Louis Williams, Rodney Carney saw their minutes jump and veteran 3-point ace Kyle Korver was traded to Utah to free up needed salary cap space for this summer.
Andre Iguodala and Andre Miller are having career years, providing the steady scoring, leadership, defense and guidance Philadelphia needed to become a winner.
``He mixed it up and knew when to play them,'' Miller said.
The Sixers now play an exciting, fastbreaking style that turned them into one of the hottest teams in the NBA, brought the packed crowds back to a desolate Wachovia Center and even earned Cheeks a one-year contract extension.
``Guys have really bought into what he's doing and you see the results,'' said Sixers assistant coach Henry Bibby. ``He's tough on the players at times, he's tough on the coaches at times. If he feels like being tough, he's tough. When he feels like backing off, he backs off.''
Cheeks, whose retired No. 10 jersey hangs in the rafters and starred for the Sixers from 1978-89, had a mostly miserable homecoming in his first two seasons on the bench. The Allen Iverson-Chris Webber pairing flopped, and the Sixers missed the playoffs both years, going 38-49 in 2005-06 and 35-47 last season.
``The last couple of years have been pretty challenging on me, my friends, everybody,'' Cheeks said. ``I think pretty much I stayed the same as a person. That's what I'm most proud of. It would have been easy for me to be a downer and everything that goes along with the games that we were losing.''
Cheeks won 49 and 50 games his first two seasons in Portland and made the postseason each time, but this season may be his best coaching job yet.
``I don't know if it's my best or what it is, but I've enjoyed it so much based upon the players that I have,'' he said.
Cheeks enjoyed himself after Thursday's practice. He shot a few jumpers, joked with reporters and impressed with his knowledge of the key plot points in ``The Young and the Restless.'' That would be the daytime drama, of course, not has 20-something nucleus.
``In a soap opera, you can always keep a job,'' said Cheeks, laughing.
Turns out, taking lottery-bound kids to a postseason date sure does help as well.