H. Rumph Jr./Associated Press
Even in absentia from the opening night roster, Andrew Bynum heard a roaring ovation when he was introduced.
By the end, the loudest cheers were reserved for the active big man in the middle: “Spen-cer Hawes!”
Hawes had 16 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots to lead the Philadelphia 76ers to an 84-75 win over the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night.
Hawes was set to start at power forward alongside Bynum until the All-Star center’s knee injury forced third-year coach Doug Collins to shuffle his lineup. Hawes accepted the shift to sixth man without complaint and proved how valuable he’ll be around the basket with Bynum absent.
On opening night, Hawes even heard chants of “MVP!” from a rowdy crowd of nearly 20,000 fans holding lofty expectations for the Sixers.
“We want to be the kind of team they can embrace,” Hawes said. “We have big expectations this year. We know we have to contribute whatever way we’re asked.”
Hawes and Jrue Holiday turned away a Nuggets team late in the fourth that whittled a 13-point deficit down to one off a Ty Lawson jumper.
Holiday, stating his case for a max-money contract extension, was fouled on a fallaway jumper and made the free throw for a 74-70 lead. Hawes then stuffed a driving Lawson, was fouled, then made two free throws to stretch it back to six in a matter of seconds.
Hawes buried a jumper to make it 78-70, and the crowd went wild with “MVP” chants for the 7-1 center. Oh, Hawes had one more block for good measure to seal the win.
Holiday had 14 and 11 assists, and Dorell Wright scored 14 points for the revamped Sixers.
Lawson led Denver with 16 points in his first game since signing a $48-million, four-year extension. Andre Iguodala scored 11 points in his first game since the Sixers traded him to Denver in the four-team deal that netted them Bynum.
The Sixers underwent a massive overhaul that saw them dump pricey veterans Iguodala, Elton Brand and Lou Williams. They brought in Bynum, Wright, Jason Richardson and a cast of reserves expected to build off last season’s surprising run to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Iguodala returned after an eight-year career with the 76ers where he became an All-Star and an Olympic gold medalist. He heard loud, intense boos during pregrame introductions and was booed about every time he touched the ball. The Sixers did air a video tribute at the first timeout of his finest moment as a Sixer, when he sank the winning free throws with 2.2 seconds left in a 79-78 victory over the top-seeded Chicago Bulls in Game 6, helping them advance to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs for the first time since 2003. Fans stood and cheered him for the first and only time of the game.
He thanked the Sixers and their fans on his personal website Wednesday, writing, “I will always share my accomplishments with the city and the organization and I thank you both for all that you have done for me.”
Iguodala criticized the Sixers after the deal and said he hadn’t “really enjoyed basketball a whole lot the last couple of years. He said after the game the comments were not a shot at Collins. But Iguodala made it clear the fact he never became the franchise player the fans expected after an $80-million, six-year contract weighed on him.
“I was really saying, ‘I didn’t get to enjoy success,’” Iguodala said. “I made the All-Star team, played on the USA team, played on the 2010 (World Championships) team, and it seemed like every time I stepped back on the court, it wasn’t enough.”
He added: “Money always plays a role in how someone is percieved or looked at as far as production. I feel like I made a huge impact on my team night in and night out, whether it showed up on the stat sheet or not, and it was always brought up. Every night, you’re thinking, this last game I played good, but it’s still not enough, not enough, not enough.”
Sixers’ die-hards may never have truly embraced Iguodala, but they roared when Bynum walked out of the tunnel at pregame introductions.
Bynum remains indefinitely sidelined with a bone bruise in his right knee. The Sixers are being cautious with Bynum and refuse to rush him back.
They’d rather have the services of the center considered the best in the East for the long haul instead of a few games, or even a few weeks, at the start of the season.
With the way Hawes played around the basket, Bynum can afford to get all the rest he needs.