Best Loss Ever: Sixers Lose Game Five and Series to Heat, But Show World Who They Are

Best Loss Ever: Sixers Lose Game Five and Series to Heat, But Show World Who They Are

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.

NFL Playoff Wrap: Packers, Steelers off to conference title games after dramatic wins

NFL Playoff Wrap: Packers, Steelers off to conference title games after dramatic wins

ARLINGTON, Texas -- This time it was a catch, and another win for the Green Bay Packers.

Call it a "Half Mary" from Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers threw a 36-yard pass to a toe-dragging Jared Cook on the sideline, and Mason Crosby kicked a 51-yard field goal as time expired, sending the Packers to the NFC championship game with their eighth straight win while thwarting a huge Dallas rally in a 34-31 victory in the divisional round of the playoffs Sunday.

The throw on the run from Rodgers to Cook -- confirmed on review -- wasn't nearly as debatable as Dez Bryant's famous catch that wasn't in the Cowboys' divisional round loss to Green Bay two years ago.

Cook kept both feet inbounds with a knee just above the ground out of bounds.

And it came after the Cowboys tied the game twice in the final 5 minutes behind rookie sensations Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in their playoff debut.

It was the third field goal of more than 50 yards in the final 1:38 -- two from Crosby and one from Dallas' Dan Bailey. And Crosby had to make the winner twice after Dallas coach Jason Garrett called timeout before the first attempt.

Rodgers, who sparked last week's wild-card win over the New York Giants with another Hail Mary before halftime, is headed to an MVP showdown with Atlanta's Matt Ryan next Sunday. It will be his third NFC title game -- all on the road.

Green Bay's win was the first by a road team after 12 straight home victories in the playoffs dating to last season.

The Cowboys (13-4) almost became the third team in the Super Bowl era to win in the playoffs after trailing by 15 points in the fourth quarter. The first was Dallas in 1972, when "Captain Comeback", Roger Staubach, rallied the Cowboys for a 30-28 win over San Francisco.

Instead, Dallas ended up with its fifth straight loss in the divisional round and a 21-year drought in trips to the NFC championship game.

Prescott got the Dallas rally going with a 40-yard touchdown toss in the first half to Bryant, the first playoff TD for the star receiver.

Then he set the stage for the first tying score on a 6-yarder to Jason Witten, also the first postseason touchdown for the 14th-year tight end.

Rodgers led the Packers to a go-ahead 56-yard field goal from Crosby with a big boost on a pass interference penalty against rookie Anthony Brown that wiped out an interception from Jeff Heath, whose pick earlier in the game helped Dallas rally.

The Cowboys answered with a 52-yarder from Bailey (see full recap).

Steelers hold off Chiefs to set up rematch with Pats in AFC title game
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Who needs to reach the end zone when you have Le'Veon Bell chewing up yards and the clock, and Chris Boswell setting an NFL playoff record with six field goals?

Throw in a stingy Pittsburgh defense for most of Sunday night, and a multitude of mistakes by Kansas City, and the Steelers' 18-16 victory sent them into the AFC championship game.

The Steelers (13-5) needed to hold off a last-ditch threat by the Chiefs (12-5) before advancing to face New England next Sunday night for a spot in the Super Bowl. The Patriots won at Pittsburgh 27-16, but Ben Roethlisberger was injured and didn't play.

Spencer Ware's 1-yard touchdown run took Kansas City within 18-16. The Chiefs at first converted the 2-pointer to tie it, but tackle Eric Fisher -- the first overall selection in the 2013 draft -- was penalized for holding. The next try failed.

With 2:43 remaining, Justin Gilbert misplayed the kick return and was tackled at the Pittsburgh 5. Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for 7 yards on third down and Pittsburgh then ran out the clock, securing a ninth straight victory for the Steelers. The Chiefs have not won a home playoff game since 1994, losing five in a row.

The scoring started furiously in the opening minutes, then the game became a kicking exhibition by Boswell, who also had six field goals in the regular season against Cincinnati. And Bell put on a virtuoso running performance, patiently finding holes and then exploding through them. He added a team-record 170 yards rushing to the 167 he had in a win over Miami last week.

The Steelers became first team to win a playoff game without a TD since eventual Super Bowl champion Indianapolis in the 2006 AFC divisional round at Baltimore.

Using a no-huddle attack almost to perfection early on, the Steelers drove deep into Kansas City territory. But they bogged down inside the 5 and Boswell made a 22-yard field goal.

The Chiefs were just as efficient on a six-play march capped by receiver Albert Wilson lining up in the backfield, then slipping uncovered into the end zone for a 5-yard score.

Pittsburgh's answer came on a 52-yard heave to All-Pro Brown, who somehow was covered by linebacker Justin Houston. That led to Boswell's second field goal, a 38-yarder. He added a 36-yarder to cap a 14-play drive on which Pittsburgh again barely huddled.

A clean game up until then turned to, well, turnovers, on successive series. Bud Dupree pounded Alex Smith, whose pass shot high into the air and was caught by linebacker Ryan Shazier.

The Steelers got to the Kansas City 5, where Frank Zombo leaped to deflect Roethlisberger's throw, and All-Pro safety Eric Berry -- burned for 26 yards on the previously play -- picked it off in the end zone.

Boswell's fourth field goal, from 45 yards, made it 12-7 at the half. His 43-yarder, setting the franchise record for a postseason game and tying the league mark of five, came on Pittsburgh's first series of the second half. A 43-yarder midway in the fourth quarter gave Boswell the NFL record.

Kansas City's Cairo Santos got in on the kicking act with a 48-yarder to make it 15-10. At that point, 10 seconds from the end of the third quarter, the Chiefs were outgained 333 yards to 150 (see full recap).

Best of NBA: James Harden's 12th triple-double paces Rockets' rout of Nets

Best of NBA: James Harden's 12th triple-double paces Rockets' rout of Nets

NEW YORK -- James Harden had 22 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in his 12th triple-double of the season and the Houston Rockets easily ended their first losing streak of the season by beating the Brooklyn Nets 137-112 on Sunday night.

Held to 105 points in losses to Minnesota and Memphis, the Rockets bounced back with 104 after three quarters and handed the Nets their 10th straight loss.

Eric Gordon led the Rockets with 24 points and Trevor Ariza added 23. Houston made 21 3-pointers and had five players with at least 16 points.

Houston shot just 40.8 percent during its two losses, well below its 46.8 season average, while being held nearly 10 points below its season scoring average. But the Rockets had no trouble bouncing back against the Nets, who allow an NBA-worst 114.3 per game (see full recap).

DeRozan leads Raptors past Knicks
TORONTO -- DeMar DeRozan had 23 points, Norman Powell added 21 and the Toronto Raptors used a dominant third quarter to beat the New York Knicks 116-101 on Sunday.

DeRozan also had five rebounds and five assists before coming out late in the third quarter.

The Raptors improved to 27-13, taking the lead for good late in the first quarter. They led by 38 points in the third in winning their third straight game overall and fifth in a row against the Knicks.

DeMarre Carroll added 20 points, and Jonas Valanciunas had 12 points and 16 rebounds.

Carmelo Anthony led the Knicks with 18 points, Justin Holiday had 17, and Derrick Rose added 16. The Knicks are 2-10 in their last 12 to drop to 18-23 (see full recap).

Hawks stay hot by beating Bucks    
ATLANTA -- Kent Bazemore scored 24 points, Mike Dunleavy added 20 and the Atlanta Hawks beat the Milwaukee Bucks 111-98 on Sunday.

Giannis Antetokounmpo finished with 33 points and was a tough matchup in the paint for Milwaukee, which dropped 2 1/2 games behind the fourth-place Hawks in the Eastern Conference.

Atlanta has won eight of nine. The Bucks have dropped three of five.

Dunleavy, in his second game since arriving in a trade last week with Cleveland, had his first 20-point performance since a first-round playoff game for Chicago on April 30, 2015.

Antetokounmpo has scored at least 30 points in eight games in a breakout season (see full recap)