Young 76ers Are Ringing the Bell

Andre Iguodala said of the 76ers,
Andre Iguodala said of the 76ers, "We have a lot of guys who want to prove that they can play in this league." (By Phelan M. Ebenhack -- Associated Press)
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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 19, 2008

PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia 76ers guard Louis Williams wasn't satisfied that he shook San Antonio's Manu Ginobili off balance after a staggering crossover dribble last Saturday. No, he also wanted to embarrass Tim Duncan while he was at it. The 6-foot-2 Williams blew past the wobbling Ginobili and attempted to climb Duncan for dunk that surely would have been "favorited" several times on YouTube.

"I really wasn't thinking about who was there," Williams said. "I didn't care. Whoever was there, I was going to try to get it over him."

Duncan stuffed Williams's foolish plans, spiking the ball -- and Williams -- to the ground with ease. "Tim's kind of big," Williams said afterward.

But the nerve and spunk of Williams and many of his young, energetic, don't-know-any-better teammates has pushed the unlikely rise of the 76ers, a team picked by many in the preseason to finish at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

Philadelphia will welcome back Allen Iverson on Wednesday night at Wachovia Center for the first time since he was traded to the Denver Nuggets 15 months ago. But in an unexpected twist, Iverson's team is on the outside looking in to the Western Conference playoff picture, while the team he left in shambles appears firmly entrenched in the East.

The 76ers (33-34) have won three in a row and have the seventh-best record in the East, trailing the Washington Wizards by a half-game for sixth and the Toronto Raptors by one game for fifth.

"We're probably ahead of schedule," 76ers President and General Manager Ed Stefanski said. "There is no question we're happy with the success, but we're not satisfied."

And, if they can spoil Iverson's much-anticipated return, the 76ers would reach .500 for the first time since the former league most valuable player and face of the franchise was dealt on Dec. 19, 2006. Philadelphia has avoided the precipitous fall that usually comes with trading a superstar player, going 63-63.

"We have a lot of guys who want to prove that they can play in this league and are playing confident basketball right now. That's all it takes," said Andre Iguodala, the 76ers' leading scorer. "The opportunity has opened up for a lot of people to show what they can do offensively, including myself. But we learned a lot from [Iverson]. He showed us a lot. We've been able to grow as players just by playing with him."

As Iguodala spoke, it was difficult to ignore the shiny chain with the initials "A.I." hanging from his neck. With the old A.I. back where his career began, the 76ers know that the atmosphere on Wednesday night will be electric.

"Like a Michael Jackson concert -- the old, big-nose Michael Jackson," said Williams, 21, who was born nearly four years after Jackson released his most commercially successful album, "Thriller."

The teams have split two games, both played in Denver, since the trade. In the last meeting on Jan. 6, Iverson scored 38 points to lead the Nuggets to a 109-96 win. At the time, Philadelphia was in the midst of a seven-game losing streak to start the calendar year. "We were way down at one point," said 76ers Coach Maurice Cheeks, who was given a contract extension last month.

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