By Matt Jenkins
---- — BOSTON — Two days after a triumphant Boston homecoming, the streak began.
Loss after loss after loss piled up for Michael Carter-Williams and the Philadelphia 76ers. It was unlike anything Carter-Williams, the Sixers rookie point guard from Hamilton, had ever experienced in his basketball career.
The skid ballooned to an NBA record-tying 26 straight losses when the Houston Rockets defeated the Sixers by 22 points last Thursday. Yet as difficult as it was, it brought something out in Carter-Williams that hadn’t yet been seen during his brief time in the pros.
Even though Carter-Williams has been a statistical front-runner in the rookie class, it took a nearly two-month losing streak to bring out the true leader in him.
“It was after we lost to Houston and I just felt like as a point guard and one of the leaders, I should step up and say something after the game. I just said we need to come out as a team every game and go out swinging,” said Carter-Williams, who scored 24 points and added 6 rebounds and 6 assists in a 111-102 win over the Celtics last night at TD Garden, coming in his second professional trip to Boston.
“Maybe I should have said it earlier. At that time, the team responded well and we got the win in the next game.”
Two days after Carter-Williams addressed his teammates in the locker room, the Sixers pounded the Detroit Pistons to avoid establishing a new all-time NBA mark for consecutive losses.
In terms of stress and pressure, Carter-Williams had a tougher time playing in Boston in January.
The TD Garden then (just as it was last night) was packed with friends and family, and there were a smattering of Carter-Williams jerseys scattered throughout the arena. Carter-Williams put extra pressure on himself to perform in that contest two-and-a-half months ago and finished with 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting, seven assists and five rebounds. Philadelphia walked away with a one-point win on Evan Turner’s last second drive.
“I was so happy everyone came out and so shocked to be even playing there. After the game I told my parents and family that I saw the time going down (so quickly) and didn’t even realize it. I was so shocked that I was playing there,” said Carter-Williams, who felt a little more relaxed against the Celtics last night.
“It definitely was tough. Like I said, it was a big blur to me when I was out there. I grew up watching the Celtics ... and now I’m playing there.”
Carter-Williams is far from a finished product and his team in the midst of a major rebuilding phase. Trade deadline deals that sent veterans Turner and Lavoy Allen to Indiana, and Spencer Hawes to Cleveland, thrust Carter-Williams into a leadership role and the Sixers are only beginning to see his potential in that department.
Times have been tough in Philly, but the organization is keeping an eye on brighter days and Carter-Williams is a focal point of that future.
For what it’s worth, Carter-Williams is currently the face of the organization, and help — albeit young and inexperienced help — is on the way. Fellow rookie and Massachusetts native Nerlens Noel, who has sat out the entire season with a knee injury, should be back at full strength by next year. In addition, the Sixers own two lottery picks (their own and New Orleans’) in the June draft, which is expected to be talented and deep.
“It was tough, especially seeing Evan go. I was closest to him and seeing Spence and Lavoy go was also tough. It is what it is. You have to move on quickly and just focus on the task at hand,” Carter-Williams said.
“We’re just trying to finish strong. Once it’s over, we’ll focus on next year and getting better in the offseason. Whoever we end up picking (in the draft), we’ll focus on getting in the gym as soon as we can and get team chemistry.”
Through everything, Carter-Williams has remained remarkably consistent, considering the changes the Sixers have gone through.
He leads all rookies in the big four statistical categories — points (16.6), assists (6.2), rebounds (6.1) and steals (1.9). According to NBA.com, he’s fifth in rebounding among guards (that is, if you consider Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and P.J. Tucker guards).
He was recently named the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for March, his third time collecting that honor. He’s the first Sixer to earn that distinction three times, and he remains the favorite to win the Rookie of the Year accolades, although Orlando Magic guard Victor Oladipo has closed the gap over the second half of the season.
To put Carter-Williams’ rookie season in perspective, there are only two players in the league currently averaging at least 16 points, six rebounds and six assists: him and LeBron James.
“He doesn’t worry about (the stats); everyone else talks about it. I’m a big Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick guy, and Parcells always said stats are for losers,” Zach Zegarowski, Carter-Williams’ stepfather, said. “They’re for other people to talk about. It’s about winning, competing and getting better. If you compete and play hard, the stats are going to be there.”
Zegarowski has traveled back and forth between Hamilton and Philadelphia this season. By his estimation, he’s spent about 80 percent of his time since September 15 with Carter-Williams in Philadelphia. He’s been most impressed with MCW’s commitment to getting better.
“I’m real proud of his effort and engagement. It’s the highest level of basketball; it’s difficult every night and he’s been engaged mentally. That’s the best thing to see,” Zegarowski said. “Michael gets there early and stays late, doing his therapy and watching film.
“There’s a lot of good stuff going on. The record doesn’t show it, but from a basketball standpoint it’s been a good year. Stats-wise it’s been a good year, but more importantly he’s playing better basketball.”