Man, this is tough. Not as tough as losing as a favorite, not as tough as getting barely outplayed by a peer, but tough all the same. To see your guys do their best, to play hard, to execute, to hang in there, and still come up short...it's not heartbreaking, it's not even depressing, it's just damn dispiriting. It's hard to say that losing two games the way the Knicks have, off bad ref calls, late-game flubs and last-second Celtics shots, would be preferable—it probably wouldn't be—but you do have to be a little envious of the Knick fans for at least being able to feel some sort of righteous indignation for feeling they were the better team in both games that they lost. With the Sixers, there's no such feeling of injustice: They keep losing to the Heat—as they did tonight, 100-94—simply because they're not as good as the Heat are.
In a way it's not so bad, because none of the Sixers really have to feel bad about the way they played in tonight's loss. Elton Brand was a beast, going for 21 and 11, helping to keep the team afloat in the second half. Lou Will penetrated and scored as he failed to do in the first game, ending with 15 and four assists, with a couple threes and no turnovers. Spencer Hawes was often the Sixer that the Heat sagged off of defensively, and he did a decent job of making them pay, going 6-11 for 12 points. Andre Iguodala had his struggles—and believe me, we'll get to them later—but he also handed out 10 assists to only one turnover, and played hounding defense on LeBron, who was "held" to 24 points, 12 rebounds and six assists. (It could have been a lot worse, sadly.)
And the player of the game, the series, and possibly the season for the Sixers would have to be Jrue Holiday. Scoring 20 points with the versatility we've come to expect of him (jumpers, bankers, up-and-unders, threes) and handing out eight assists with only two turnovers, he looked like the Sixers' best offensive weapon on the court all night. Most encouraging to me was the open top-of-the-arc three that he stepped into with the Sixers trailing late in the fourth—it wasn't the smartest shot, but it was a shot that the team desperately needed, and one that Holiday would never have had the confidence to take earlier in the season. Getting Jrue that kind of big-game experience might end up being our biggest takeaway from this series, and seeing him respond to it like he has is a real positive. You'd like to see Evan Turner, who got just seven first-half minutes after scoring a team high 15 in game two, get some of that good stuff as well, but with Coach Collins needing 'Dre's defense on LeBron pretty much the whole game, it's not terribly surprising that ET got the snub.
And ah yes, let us talk a little further about Mr. Iguodala. 'Dre's performance tonight was a microcosm not only for this Heat series at large, but his entire run in Philly since graduating to the role of franchise player. He did so many things on the court—without his defense and playmaking, the team's probably not even close in this game—but all that most Sixer fans are likely to remember from his effort tonight are the trio of wide-open threes that he spotted up for, badly bricking all three. It sucks for such a great player to forever be remembered for the one thing he can't do, but the team needed so badly for him to hit one of those shots, and he just couldn't make it happen. With his 10 points tonight, 'Dre has a mere 19 points combined in the first three games of this series. Damning, to say the least, and yet another illustration why as much as 'Dre does for this team, he'll never be the guy to lead them to the promised land on his lonesome.
Meanwhile, another guy whose lack of shooting tough is coming back to haunt him is Thaddeus Young. After being the Sixers' biggest (only) weapon in Game One of the series, the Heat appear to have made it a point of emphasis for Young to get no easy lanes to the basket, forcing him into a variety of hook shots and jumpers, none of which have been dropping for him. He was able to pad his stats in garbage time in game two, but Thad had no such luck in this contest, and only a late scoop prevented him from posting an 0-fer in the field goal column, ending with four points total. Ironically, Thad's tailing off in this series might end up being a good thing for the Sixers long-term, as it might either prevent him from demanding an over-inflated contract on the open market in the off-season, allowing Philly to afford keeping him, or it might persuade them to let him walk, saving the Sixers from tying up their precious little remaining cap space to keep him. (Of course, a lackluster '08 post-season didn't stop the Sixers from giving 'Dre $80 million, so who knows, really.)
So now what? The Sixers threw their best punch and still lost, Miami's Big Three (a combined 77 points and 31 rebounds) displaying too much firepower for the Liberty Ballers to contain, and their size on the offensive boards (20 offensive / 50 total to Philly's 11 / 34) proving too much to match up with. They'll try again on Sunday to stave off the sweep, and we certainly hope they'll be able to, but we're not really holding our breath at this point. You can't really get on the guys or the coaching staff for it, since they're legitimately doing the best they can, but the best the Sixers can do at this point is just to try to delay the inevitable as long as possible. The 76ers' '10-'11 season will be coming to an end sooner rather than later.