O’Brien meets his former team for the first time as he leads the 76ers against the Celtics in the season opener for both teams.
O’Brien coached Boston from 2001 until he resigned during the middle of last season. In his first season with the 76ers, O’Brien went 139-119 with the Celtics, who are now coached by Doc Rivers.
He has quickly put his stamp on the 76ers, moving star Allen Iverson from shooting guard to point guard and making several unexpected lineup changes. He also sent Glenn Robinson to the bench and made Aaron McKie and Marc Jackson starters.
Shooting guard Willie Green and center Samuel Dalembert, both expected to pick up where they left off last year as starters, also were demoted and rookie first-round pick Andre Iguodala replaced Robinson at small forward.
“Glenn took it about as good as any NBA player has ever taken news that he was not going to be in the starting lineup,” O’Brien said. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for the professional way he handled the situation.”
Robinson, entering his 11th season, has started 668 of 679 career games and has a 20.8 career scoring average.
However, the key to O’Brien and Philadelphia’s success this season may be Iverson’s transition.
It seemed to go well in the preseason. O’Brien said Iverson has been unselfish at the point, usually looking for the open man and leading the fast break.
“Being happy would be an understatement,” O’Brien said. “He’s probably the reason we’re as far along as we are right now.”
Iverson had perhaps his most miserable season last year when he missed 34 games with a knee injury, clashed with interim coach Chris Ford and was nearly invisible in the locker room the final two months of the season. Iverson, however, says he has a new appreciation and attitude toward his career and role as one of the game’s elder statesman.
“It’s going to be the best year I ever had, by far,” a confident Iverson said.
Payton averaged 14.6 points, 5.5 assists and 34.5 minutes last year—his lowest totals in 11 seasons. He has career averages of 18 points, 7.2 assists and 36.8 minutes.
Payton is expected to play after missing a week with a broken thumb, suffered in an exhibition game against Cleveland last Monday. He had not played or practiced since.
Payton has worn a hard splint over his right thumb, which has a non-displaced fracture, to keep it from bending backward. The team is working on a cushion for the splint that would meet the league’s approval; hard casts are not allowed.
“I’ve got to play,” Payton said. “I won’t think about it. If I think about it, I’ll fool around and make mistakes. I won’t catch the ball.”
After being traded, Payton said he did not want to play in Boston or move his family from the West Coast, and missed an Aug. 13 deadline for his physical. But he reported to the Celtics’ training camp on time.
Payton and a healthy Raef LaFrentz should help take some of the pressure off Paul Pierce, who will be able to concentrate more on scoring rather than distributing. The forward led the team with 5.1 assists per game.
LaFrentz spent the majority of last season on the injured list following season-ending knee surgery in December.
2003-04 STANDINGS: 76ers - 5th place, 14 GB, Atlantic Division. Celtics - 4th place, 11 GB, Atlantic Division.
2003-04 TEAM LEADERS: 76ers - Iverson, 26.4 ppg and 6.8 apg; Thomas, 10.1 rpg. Celtics - Pierce, 23.0 ppg and 5.1 apg; Blount, 7.2 rpg.
2003-04 SEASON SERIES: Celtics, 3-1.
LAST MEETING: March 28; 76ers, 89-65. At Boston, the 76ers shot 27 percent (24-for-89) and were held to the second-lowest point total in franchise history.
2003-04 ROAD/HOME RECORDS: 76ers - 12-29 on the road. Celtics - 19-22 at home.
INJURIES: 76ers - Thomas (eye). Celtics - G Payton (thumb).