A Worthwhile Experience: Assessing Philly's Game 7 Loss to Boston

A Worthwhile Experience: Assessing Philly's Game 7 Loss to Boston
May 27, 2012, 9:15 am
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Back in early April, the Sixers faced the Celtics in a game I considered
to be an absolutely must-win for the Sixers to scrape together anything
useful or worthwhile from their 2011-12 season. After their 20-9 start
and what looked to be an easy cruise to the Atlantic Division title, the
Celtics had rebounded from their miserable start and pushed two games
ahead of the Sixers in the Division. If they won their April match
against the Ballers, they would all but lock up the division title, and
the Sixers would be doomed to face a powerhouse Heat or Bulls team in
the first round.

The Sixers lost that game, of course, and by a considerable margin. I
was feeling a little fire-and-brimstoney after that one, and the next
day, I wrote a eulogy for the team, dubbing their strike-shortened
season to be over. "While I'll probably write another eulogy for this
team once it's
officially eliminated from the post-season," I wrote, "The season really
died
Sunday night in Boston when the team desperately needed a win to and
couldn't even come close."

I never would've guessed at that point that my for-real eulogy would have come this late in the post-season.

Seriously,
it's nearly friggin' June, and teams eliminated ahead of the Sixers in
this post-season include the Lakers, the Pacers, the Grizzlies, the
defending-champion Mavericks, and, of course, the East-best Chicago
Bulls. The Sixers came a game, a quarter away from being one of the
final four teams in the NBA this season—an outcome I barely even allowed myself to dream of when the team actually was
playing like one of the two best teams in the Eastern Conference, and
one I certainly did not ponder at all in the final months of the season.

Now, you don't need me to tell you that the "Yes, but..." qualifiers
when discussing this team's post-season run, either contemporaneously
or retroactively, are many and unignorable. The Sixers lucked out in the
first place by falling to the eighth seed and avoiding the powerhouse
Miami Heat in the first-round—something the New York Knicks are probably
still kicking themselves for not doing first. Then, of course, the
season-ending injury to Bulls reigning MVP Derrick Rose made it a
series, and subsequent injury to big man Joakim Noah probably swung it
in the Sixers' favor. Even with the Celtics, Philly lucked out a little
in getting a gimpy Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, and also were handicapped
with the loss of shutdown defender Avery Bradley to shoulder injury.

But even with all of those asterisks, it's still fairly surprising
that the Sixers made it as far as they did. The team that couldn't close
out tight games against anyone in the regular season won three games in
the post-season by five or less, and a couple more going down to the
final minutes. The team without a go-to guy saw a number of players step
up in big moments, hitting clutch shots and clutch free-throws that
always seemed to rim out at the worst time for the guys during their
first 66 games. The team that seemed so breakable when they were in
their March and April free fall battled till the very end, even in a
Game Seven in Boston where none of the three best players on the court
were their own. It's an accomplishment, for certain.

The Sixers probably were never gonna win last night. A game seven in
Boston, with all the experience in the world on Boston's side and even a
couple days off for their old fogies to get a little rest, it just
wasn't something we could rightly expect to happen. The Sixers would
have needed Jrue Holiday to be the best player on the court for the
second game in a row, and though he gave it his all, and still ended up
with a decent 15 and 9 stat line (with five steals to boot), he wasn't
getting great shots, and the decent looks he was getting weren't going
in, and he ended up going just 5-17 for the evening. The Sixers got a
number of good all-around efforts elsewhere, but no one else could
really shoulder the scoring load for Philly—and that's how you end up
scoring 75 points in an elimination game.

And as previously alluded to, you can't really be mad at Philly for
losing when the three best players were all Boston's. Even without
future-Hall-of-Famer Ray Allen, who totally no-showed the first half
before hitting a couple big threes in the final two quarters, the
Celtics still had the vast talent advantage with Paul Pierce, who
lurched his way to 15 points and nine rebounds, Kevin Garnett, who
capped one of the best post-season series of his career with an 18 and
13 night, and that damned Rajon Rondo, who not only scored his ninth
career triple-double with his 18-10-10 night, but hit the dagger jumpers
(!!) that fell the Sixers in the game's final minutes. It's nothing
new, nothing unexpected. Boston won because they were better. Happens.

All that said, though, it actually wouldn't have been impossible for
the Sixers to win this game. They were in it throughout, they answered
every run the Celtics made where it looked like they were gonna pull
away like they did in games three and five, they played them tough and
forced them to actually take the game themselves. The turning point
again probably came with some missed Andre Iguodala free throws—he got
fouled on a break with less than a minute to go in the third, and went
to the line with a chance to put the Ballers up for the first time in
the second half, and possibly get the Sixers the lead going into the
fourth. Natch, he missed both, KG hit a short jumper at the other end,
and the C's were up three with all the necessary momentum going into the
final frame. Again, happens.

But I can't be mad at 'Dre for this one. It was all found money with
him as far as I was concerned—after he hit those two clutchiest of FTs
against the Bulls to send the Sixers into the second round, I sort of
figured he'd miss every free throw for the rest of his life to
compensate anyway. Besides, he was a Baller of Ballers last night,
igniting the team with his trademark slams and hitting some huge threes
to keep them in the game, scoring at team-high 18 points, all while
fending off Paul Pierce as best he could on the other end. Along with
fellow vet Elton Brand, who posted a solid 15 and six, 'Dre was the
team's toughest player, and if this was his last game as a Sixer—which I
still hope it is, no offense AI9—it was one he should be proud of.

So yeah, the off-season. That's coming now, and it's gonna be a big
one. The Sixers had three big question marks going into this
post-season, about Spencer Hawes, Lou Williams, and Andre Iguodala—would
the former two play themselves in or out of contract extensions, and
would the latter force his trade or make himself untradeable? Hawes
should be the easy one—his overall post-season numbers don't look so
bad, thanks to those two big games he had against the Bulls in the first
round, but he was virtually unplayable against Boston, especially on
defense, and he played less than 20 minutes in that Game Seven. He's all
but sure to be gone next season, unless he can be brought back at a
practical minimum contract to be a long-term back-up.

You would hope that the situation with Lou would be a similar
no-brainer, but I'm not so confident. Aside from about one nice game a
series, Lou was miserable for the playoffs, averaging just 11.5 points
on 35% shooting (though amazingly, he still ended up with a PER way
higher than Evan Turner's) while disappearing in big moments and
occasionally killing the team with his poor decision-making. As the
Sixth Man of the Year runner-up, he'll still command a decent mid-level
contract on the open market if he opts out as previously speculated, but
it shouldn't be the Sixers who pay it—he's a luxury the team can't
afford, and continuing to rely on him in fourth quarters is a mistake
that will continually hamper this team's development. Still, Collins
seems to trust him implicitly, and Sweet Lou's been a commendably loyal
soldier for this team, so the team might not have the heart to get out
of their own way and let him walk. I'm worried.

The really tough decision for the team is what to do with 'Dre.
After his awful end to the season, the struggles of which were
exacerbated by the SI interview he gave where he called out teammates
and back-handedly complimented the Philly fans, it seemed like the team
had finally made peace with the idea that it was time to cut ties with
'Dre and wish him well elsewhere. But now that he's Andre Iguodala,
Playoff Hero, will the team still have the guts to go through with it? I
hope so—and speculation seems to have it that they'll still at least
try, perhaps sending him to the Lakers—but
it might be to tough a sell to a fanbase that has only just started to
trust and believe in the team again to trade away their best player if
they aren't getting much in return.

So potential team shake-ups aside, do I really feel any different
about this team now than I did when I prematurely pronounced their Time
of Death nearly two months ago? Not really. I have a little more faith
in Jrue Holiday as a real building block for this team, perhaps—after an
up-and-down regular season, he really took the reins in the
post-season, to the team's benefit. Lavoy Allen seems like a keeper as
well, and Evan Turner...well, his numbers weren't great, but his heart
is unquestionable, and more often than not, he came through when it
mattered. But I'm not gonna start calling this the team of the future,
or say that we're just a piece or two away from contending for a
championship. Despite being one of the Final Five in the NBA this
season, we have a lot longer to go to make it to that Final Four than
this series result would indicate.

We still need that cursed go-to scorer, for one thing. Maybe it can
be Jrue in time, but it's certainly not yet, at least not reliably,
game-in, game-out. I'd love to see the team make a hard push for
restricted free agent Eric Gordon in the off-season, though I know it's
probably a pipe dream, and any #1-type guy we get at this point will
probably come through trade or a whole lotta draft luck. We also
desperately need a starting center whose name doesn't rhyme with "Fencer
Draws," one who can be a defensive anchor, or at least reliable scoring
option without totally killing us on the other end. (Again, Roy Hibbert
is an RFA, but dream on.) Without any player resembling either
description, this will be the Sixers' post-season ceiling, now and
always.

But if there's one real positive to take from this season, and this
post-season run, it's that the fanbase does seem engaged, and the
franchise relevant again. Living in New York, I can usually count the
number of non-Iverson-related Sixers memorabilia items I see people wear
on the streets per year on one hand, but this post-season, it seems
like every other day I'm running into someone rocking a Sixers hat or
Sixers shirt. (I even saw two—two!!—separate Jrue Holiday shirt
jerseys in Prospect Park on the same day.) The vibe at the WFC is
different, the ownership actually seems to give a damn, and I think that
at long last, the Sixers are ready to reclaim their place as...well,
they'll still only be the fourth-biggest Philly team, but the gap won't
be nearly as embarrassing. Baby steps.

As always, more questions than answers with this team, and none of
them easily solved. But they gave us an extra three weeks of wondrous,
confusing, uber-emotional basketball this post-season, reminded us why
we liked some of these guys so much in the early-on, and gave us hope
that there's still something real to build on in years to come, if the
right pieces ever come together. The draft comes in about a month (15th
pick, WOOOOOO), and we'll have plenty of pre-draft and post-post-season
analysis to come—but in the meantime, #showyaMFinglove for the
emotionally draining, occasionally torturous, but often loveable and
always irrepressible 2011-12 Philadelphia 76ers.

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