I have never been less upset about a heartbreaking defeat than this one. I want to cry a little, sure, but it's not out of searing desperation or bitter regret—it's because my heart is absolutely swelling with pride over how this team performed tonight, as proud as I was of the Flyers after Game Seven of the Bruins series last year, as proud as I was of the Phillies after Game Five of the World Series in 2008. As the game wound down and it became clear that the Sixers were gonna come up one miracle short, a tweet from Heat scribe Brian Windhorst started circulated around Twitter of a message that Coach Collins whispered to Elton Brand as EB delivered his sixth and final foul: "I love you to death." That just about says it all about this team right now.
The final score of the game tonight read 97-91. That's the score that the 76ers eventually and officially lost by, but it was entirely possible that they were going to lose the game several times before that, at 77-69, at 81-71, at 86-78. But every single time, the Sixers batlte back, cutting the Heat lead back to four, to two, until eventually, Philly got an open baseline runner for Evan Turner with a little over a minute left to tie the game. It wouldn't drop, and the Sixers didn't get another chance to tie it until they got the ball back with 17 seconds left, and Andre Iguodala made the somewhat perplexing decision to go for a tough two (instead of the more traditional tough three or easy two) and missed, essentially sealing the game for Miami. But if the game had lasted another two minutes, I have no doubt that the Sixers would have battled back once more. They may never have won this game, but they would never have let it slip away completely, and they would have never given up.
The list of heroes tonight for this team is almost too long to list, but let's try anyway. Elton Brand certainly gets top honors, working ridiculously hard for his 22 points, abusing the deficiencies of his defenders (shooting over Bosh, driving on Anthony) and making nearly every right decision. Jrue Holiday was unspectacular (except for that spin move, holy shit), but posted a solid stat line of 10/8/5. Thaddeus Young made up for his last few clunker games with a resplendent fourth quarter, hitting four consecutive jumpers (four--including a ridiculous turnaround shot) after seemingly not making one the entire series prior. Jodie Meeks hit a couple big threes. Spencer Hawes made a couple beautiful passes. And Evan Turner, whose rough shooting night from the field (2-10) might have ultimately been the difference in the game, still made a hugely positive contribution for the team with his first-half rebounding (eight boards, ten for the game) and his seriously impressive D on LeBron when 'Dre had to sit with three fouls in the second quarter.
And oh yes, Mr. Andre Iguodala. As always seems to be the case with 'Dre, tonight he made an excellent case for both his most loyal supporters and his harshest critics. His defense was predictably excellent, as was his rebounding (10 for the game, a team-high along with ET) and his passing (four assists to 0 turnovers). And tonight, for the first time this series, even his shot was working, as he got himself going with some big dunks early, and hit three huge fourth-quarter jumpers to keep the Sixers in the game in the last five minutes, shots he hasn't hit in months. But, when it came the crunchiest of crunch time for the Sixers, down three with 17 seconds to go, the ball went once again to 'Dre, and he failed to come through, missing his tough jumper that would've left the Sixers still down one anyway. You can't hate on him too much, because without him we're never in that situation in the first place, but it's reminder #11,437 why 'Dre's true place in this universe is still not as a go-to, true #1 guy. (It's also about as fitting a way for our season to end as any dramatic ironist could write up.)
The really impressive thing tonight wasn't any individual effort, though, but the way the team locked down on defense. They gave up a lot of threes early, yeah, as Mario Chalmers and James Jones hit a bunch of looks from deep, but I'd always rather the team force those guys to win the game, rather than letting Wade and LeBron run amok. By contrast, those two were held to a very reasonable 42 combined points for the game, and none of it was easy, as the Sixers forced them into taking tough jumpers and floaters, and consitently kept them—until the fourth quarter, anyway, where the Heat's execution just became too crisp for the Sixers to stop—off the free-throw line, where'd they so often killed the Sixers earlier in the series. Those early threes and those late free throws (of which the Heat only missed a couple, whereas the Sixers bricked a whole handful) ended up being a bit too much to overcome, but the Sixers' D gave them a very real chance up until the end, and that's all you can really hope for in a game like this.
Look, the Sixers are a flawed team. They don't have a big man or a #1 scorer, and the only guy on the team to ever play in an All-Star Game hasn't done so since 2006. But those are personnel issues, ones whose blame can (and should) be squarely laid at the feet of the front office. All we ask—all we've ever asked—of those men wearing our team colors on the court and on the sideline is that they try their absolute hardest, play to the best of their ability, do any and everything in their power to help their team win the game. And if anyone doubts that the Sixers did this tonight, against this significantly superior team, this potential dynasty in the making...well, you guys know where to find me, I'd be more than happy to set you straight. Personally, I could not ask for more.
There's still much to be discussed with this team, in terms of where the team needs to go from here, and what moves need to be made in the off-season for them to hopefully get there. But before that, an observation I made over the course of this series. This time last year, there was another lower-seeded Eastern Conference team that went up against a superior, LeBron James-led opponent. Like the Sixers, they lost in five games, just barely managing to steal one away, but in the process, they turned a lot of heads with their energy, their toughness and their defense, battling in every game and showing flashes that perhaps the best days for them laid ahead. That team was the Chicago Bulls, who this year made the jump from the eighth seed to the first seed, and currently await the winner of the Hawks-Magic series, having already advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
Now, I don't mean to suggest that the two teams will follow directly similar paths—the Bulls had the advantage of having Derrick Rose (a once-in-a-generation talent) and a whole lot of incoming cap space (with which they signed free agents like Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korever and Ronnie Brewer) to build around, neither of which the Sixers will have at their disposal. But even if the slopes will be different, I do now believe that the Sixers are moving in the same direction as the Bulls were—and at the very least, that they have more in common with Chicago than with the Milwaukee Bucks, who overachieved to the fifth seed last year, played tough in the playoffs but got bounced in the first round, and regressed majorly this year as the franchise made cap-clogging signings of role players under the assumption that the team was ready to make a jump that they just weren't fit for.
But regardless of how hopeful you are for the future—and I do have to allow for the possibility that the boys' performance tonight has me thinking less than clearly about their oncoming prospects—you have to give it up for how they played tonight. One of my big questions at the end of the season this year was "Is this team any different from the fools' gold playoff team
s of '08 and '09"? And while it's still less than conclusive, compare how the playoffs ended this year to how they ended in both of those seasons. Against Orlando and Detroit, Philly were eliminated in blowouts at home, games that were over before halftime, as opposed to tonight's down-to-the-wire squeaker on the road—against a team much more talented than either of those Pistons or Magic squads. I left those post-seasons thinking "What was the point of it all?" I'm leaving this one thinking "Goddamn I'm glad I got to experience this instead of another miserable year of tanking."
I love this team, and outside of the miserable beginning (the 3-13 start) and the discouraging end (the final-game loss against the Pistons at home to drop them to .500), I've thoroughly enjoyed rooting for them all year. Even if they'd won tonight somehow, I don't think I'd feel that much better about them than I do right now. I can't wait for next year to start already. And I definitely can't wait to cheer against the Miami Heat in the next round, and possibly for the rest of my life.